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  • Long-awaited microbicide gel faces funding shortfall


[OUDTSHOORN, SOUTH AFRICA] South African scientists are in New York this week trying to secure funding for the final trials of a vaginal gel that could save millions of lives by giving women the chance to protect themselves against HIV/AIDS.

The microbicide gel, containing the antiretroviral agent tenofovir, passed phase III clinical trials in June, and the success was announced at the XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna in July.

But efforts last month to drum up funding for two final trials have so far produced promises of only US$58 million, much less than the US$100 million that the researchers want.

Salim Abdool Karim, a scientist at the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) who led a study of the gel with his wife, Quarraisha Abdool Karim, said the money is needed to pay for support studies and product licensing.

The CAPRISA 004 trial, which found that tenofovir gel was at least 39 per cent effective in preventing HIV infection when it was applied before and after sex, was conducted in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province, which has one of the world's highest HIV infection rates. A woman can apply the gel even if her partner refuses to use a condom.

So far, the South African Department of Science and Technology has offered US$13.5 million, USAID in Washington is giving US$18.5 million, USAID in South Africa US$19 million and the United Kingdom's Medical Research Council (MRC) about US$7 million.

The funders made their offers at an August meeting in Johannesburg of the global HIV/AIDS community, held to plan the research needed to complete studies on the gel.  

"I was very disappointed after the meeting," said Karim. "I expected to walk out with all the money we needed to take this project to the next level."

He is now meeting other potential funders in the United States and approaching donors in Sweden.

"If we still do not have enough we will ask Australia and Japan," he said.

The UK Department for International Development (DFID), once a major supporter of microbicide research, has declined to fund the work, said Karim.

"That was very disappointing as I had expected it would be interested in a project like this," he added.

A DFID spokesperson said the department partially funds the MRC, which is spending money on the trials. Further, all DFID programmes are under review and it cannot presently make new funding decisions.

Meanwhile, the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP) said it would first have to consult member states. The Gates Foundation also attended the August meeting but has not offered any funding so far, said Karim. The foundation did not respond to SciDev.Net inquiries.

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