AIDS vaccine funding waning, scientists warn

Around two million HIV/AIDS patients die each year Copyright: Flickr/United Nations Photo

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[ATLANTA] Funding for HIV/AIDS vaccine research is drying up — just as scientists are claiming "optimism" about their research, a conference has heard.

The amount of money going into research has decreased because of the economic downturn and competing global health priorities, Alan Berstein, executive director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, told the AIDS Vaccine 2010 conference in the United States this week (28 September–1 October).

Last year’s RV144 vaccine trial on 16,000 people in Thailand showed for the first time that a vaccine could cut the risk of HIV infection, and followed years of failure to make progress on vaccines. Phase III trials of this vaccine will be conducted early in 2011 in South Africa and Thailand, Berstein said at the international meeting.

"A vaccine is possible and recent trials should be followed up if we want to accelerate development of a preventive HIV vaccine," Berstein told SciDev.Net. "If we had a vaccine, the humanitarian benefit would be enormous.

"We have to make sure that the money we have now is being spent on the most effective and justified research and clinical trials. It is crucial to diversify [funding sources] and increase funds," Bernstein said.

HIV/AIDS research receives around US$1.1 billion globally, of which some US$868 million goes towards vaccine research, according to a report of the HIV Vaccines and Microbicides Resource Tracking Working Group ‘Advancing the Science in a Time of Fiscal Constraint: Funding For HIV Prevention Technologies in 2009. In 2009 the public sector provided 86 per cent, the philanthropic sector 11 per cent, and the commercial sector just three per cent of this funding.

But Berstein said that funding had dropped ten per cent between 2007 and 2009.  

"There is a need to back up science with long-term sustainable funding," said Mitchell Warren, executive director of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, adding that the community should mobilise new funders and new investments to exploit recent scientific progress.

The Global HIV Enterprise’s 2010 Scientific Strategic Plan for the coming five years, which was presented at the meeting, and was published in the current issue of Nature Medicine (September), called for more involvement of the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries in vaccine research and greater funding from emerging economies.

But Salim Abdool Karim, a scientist from the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa, who led the first effective microbicide gel trial in preventing HIV infection, told SciDev.Net that, while funding is important, there are more pressing scientific problems to address. For example, experts need to explore and strengthen trial design strategies to increase the number, efficiency and speed of clinical trials, he said.

 Link to Global HIV Enterprise’s ‘2010 Scientific Strategic Plan’ in Nature Medicine