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One of South Africa's leading HIV research initiatives is floundering due to a lack of funding.

The public-private South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative (SAAVI) was established by South Africa's Medical Research Centre in 1999, to coordinate the development and testing of HIV vaccines in South Africa.

But officials have confirmed that its existing funding contracts have expired and one of the primary funders, the state electricity company Eskom, said in February that it would not be renewing its US$1.86 million yearly funding — one third of SAAVI's annual budget.

Andrew Epzinger, chairman of Eskom's Development Foundation, which oversees Eskomgrants, says the company is refocusing its funding to concentrate on communities affected by new power stations.

SAAVI communications manager Michelle Galloway says they have had to stop some activities, including vaccine development and testing, until funding is secured.

Galloway told SciDev.Net that they are negotiating the renewal of contracts with other core funders. The South African Department of Health has given a verbal agreement to continue its US$1.24 million annual funding. But negotiations are ongoing with the Department of Science and Technology — which provides around US$1.86 million — who wish to reassess the initiative, according to a report in the South African Sunday Times.

SAAVI has also been without a full-time director for three years following difficulties finding a suitable candidate.

Galloway says that the HIV vaccine research field in general has suffered setbacks, with difficulties raising funds from the private sector, as it could take several years for funders to see any return on their investment.

Salim Karim, head of the Centre for the Aids programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) says a carefully considered long-term scientific plan is needed that can provide new approaches to the development of HIV vaccines.

"This requires new bold scientific leadership and a re-direction of resources, currently consumed in maintaining clinical trial sites, into a broader effort, which includes studies of other HIV prevention strategies," says Karim.

He says that, unfortunately, SAAVI is not appropriately placed in South Africa's science hierarchy, or in possession of the necessary leadership to rise to this challenge at the moment.