20 July 2009

Govt halts vaccine funding

South Africa launched a high-profile Aids vaccine trial on Monday, yet its leading scientist says the government has halted its support for the research project.

South Africa launched a high-profile Aids vaccine trial on Monday, yet its leading scientist says the government has halted its support for the research project.

Professor Anna-Lise Williamson told The Associated Press that South Africa's Department of Science and Technology has decided to stop funding her research and the utility Eskom's contract for funding ended last year and was not renewed.

"For vaccine development presently, the South African Aids Vaccine initiative has no money," she said at a trial to test the vaccine's safety that was attended by American health officials who gave technical help and manufactured the vaccine at the US National Institutes of Health.

One of the first of 36 healthy volunteers was injected on Monday before officials and journalists at the ceremony in Crossroads.

US funding
Williamson said the trial would continue with US funding, but any continuing research was threatened.

"If we do not continue working on this, we will never have a vaccine," the University of Cape Town researcher said. "It's incredibly important that we keep working."

The South African vaccine, developed at the University of Cape Town, targets the specific HIV strain that has ravaged South Africa's people and produced the worst Aids epidemic in the world.

During nearly 10 years of denial and neglect, South Africa developed a staggering Aids crisis. Around 5.2 million South Africans were living with HIV last year - the highest number of any country in the world. Young women are hardest hit, with one-third of those aged 20-to-34 infected with the virus.

Williamson spoke as a new report said HIV vaccine research funding worldwide decreased for the first time since 2000, with investments of almost $1.2bn in 2008, down 10% from 2007.

Prevention and education
Aids vaccine researchers have met so many disappointments some activists are questioning the wisdom of continuing such expensive investments, saying the money might be better spent on prevention and education.

In South Africa, scientists had to overcome deep scepticism from their political leaders, who had shocked the world with their unscientific pronouncements about the disease. Williamson said South Africa, at the heart of the epidemic, must press ahead with trials to test the safety of the vaccine in humans.

"We have got the biggest ARV (anti-retroviral) rollout in the world and still hundreds of people are dying every day and getting infected everyday," she said.

Williamson's vaccine also is being tested at a trial of 12 volunteers in Boston that began earlier this year, said Anthony Mbewu, president of South Africa's government-supported Medical Research Council that shepherded the project.

The trial may have been started in the US to allay any criticism that the United States was collaborating in an Aids vaccine that would use Africans as guinea pigs.

"It is being very well tolerated, no adverse events, so it is going very well," Williamson said on Monday.

The government decided it was important to develop a vaccine specifically for the HIV subtype C strain that is prevalent in southern Africa "and to ensure that once developed, it would be available at an affordable price," Mbewu said.

South Africa was the site of the biggest setback to Aids vaccine research, when the most promising vaccine ever, produced by Merck & Co. and tested here in 2007, found that people who got the vaccine were more likely to contract HIV than those who did not.

Some 250 scientists and technicians worked on the latest vaccine project.

Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and a leading Aids researcher, said the South African scientists received more money from his institute's research fund than any others in the world except the US. The US had paid to produce the vaccine.

He called it "the most important Aids research partnership in the world."

But he warned "There are extraordinary challenges ahead," referring to the years of testing needed now that South Africa has reached the clinical trial stage. Fauci said scientists do not understand why the search for an Aids vaccine is so difficult.

At an international Aids conference in Cape Town, Vice President Kgalema Motlanthe emphasised on Sunday night that the clinical trials were being held "under strict ethical rules."

Mbewu said the crisis in South Africa, where "we have the biggest problem" in the world, more than justifies the expenditure on Aids research. Aids strikes men and women alike in Africa, where the epidemic is fuelled by the many people who have sex with several people at the same time.

In the 1990s, former president Thabo Mbeki denied the link between HIV and Aids, and his health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, mistrusted conventional anti-Aids drugs and made the country a laughing stock trying to promote beets and lemon as Aids remedies.

Williamson, a virologist, said the scientists had to fight constant controversy, including international organisations that tried to stop the state utility Eskom from funding the project. Eskom gave "huge amounts," regardless, she said.

"International organisations told Eskom that this was a terrible waste of money, that putting money into South African scientists was like backing the cart horse when they need to be backing the race horse," she said.

Even her research director told her she was wasting her time.

"Most of them just made us more determined to prove them wrong," Williamson said.

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IAS opening session


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