21 July 2009

Aids vaccine funding cut

In a bit of an anticlimax moment following yesterday’s high profile launch of the Aids vaccine, the scientist leading the research said state funding had been halted.


In a bit of an anticlimax moment following yesterday’s high profile launch of the Aids vaccine, the scientist leading the research said state funding had been halted.

The contrast between the hopeful vaccine launch and the revelation of funding cuts raised questions about whether the government was backsliding on its pledge to combat Aids.

Anna-Lise Williamson, an Aids researcher at the University of Cape Town, told The Associated Press the clinical trial would continue with US money, but she said South Africa's Department of Science and Technology had pulled its funding in March, while the project's other sponsor, the state electricity utility Eskom, did not renew its contract when it expired last year.

Neither government spokesmen nor Eskom immediately returned calls seeking comment about funding cuts.

First SA volunteer injected
The locally developed vaccine was developed at the University of Cape Town, and targets the specific HIV strain that has ravaged SA. It is also undergoing safety tests at a trial involving 12 volunteers in Boston that began earlier this year, said Sarah B. Alexander, spokeswoman for the HIV Vaccine Trials Network at the Fenway Institute, an Aids treatment centre where the trial is under way.

The safety trials started in the US to allay any criticism the United States was collaborating on an Aids vaccine that might be seen as using Africans as guinea pigs, she said.

At Monday's ceremony in Cape Town, one of 36 healthy young volunteers was injected as government officials, Aids researchers and journalists watched. The event was also attended by American health officials who gave technical help and manufactured the vaccine at the US National Institutes of Health.

The ceremony came on the sidelines of an international Aids conference where delegates expressed concern about cuts in funding for Aids research, treatment and prevention programmes because of the global economic crisis.

Worldwide concern over funding cuts
A report released Monday says worldwide funding for HIV vaccine research decreased for the first time since 2000, with investments of almost $1.2 billion in 2008, down 10% from 2007.

South Africa has not escaped the economic slowdown, and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said in his budget speech this month that while health spending remains a priority, funds would be shifted to those areas seen as most crucial.

Aids vaccine research has met so many disappointments that some activists have questioned sinking scarce funds into developing a vaccine, saying the money might be better spent on prevention and education.

Health minister Aaron Motsoaledi has promised to try to strengthen Aids prevention campaigns that were weakened for years by red tape and mixed messages from policy makers.

Even before Motsoaledi took over, the government was promising to sharply step up treatment programmes, saying it wanted to provide Aids drugs to 1.5 million people over the next three years - up from 700 000 at present. Aids activists had to file repeated legal suits to force former president Thabo Mbeki to provide Aids drugs.

Scientists being laid off
But Elise Levendal, interim director of the South African Aids Vaccine Initiative, said the programme has had to lay off scientists because of government funding cuts.

"We have had to refocus," she said. "It is a big blow." Williamson, the vaccine project's head researcher, said it was crucial to continue testing.

"For vaccine development presently, the South African Aids Vaccine initiative has no money. If we do not continue working on this, we will never have a vaccine," she said. "It's incredibly important that we keep working." – (Sapa, July 2009)

Read more:
Aids vaccine a 'giant leap' for SA
IAS opening session


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Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl qualified at the University of Pretoria before working for an HIV/AIDS NPO in Soweto for many years. She was named one of the Mail & Guardian's Top 200 Young South Africans in 2012.

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