I’m in Atlanta this week for a meeting, starting today, aimed at ridding the world of AIDS — the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise.
A vaccine is really the only way.
After many years of frustration and even despair of ever finding an HIV vaccine, there have been some significant, positive steps forward in the past year:
- — An experimental vaccine tested in Thailand showed, for the first time, that HIV infection can be prevented (though how remains a mystery). I visited Thailand earlier this year and wrote a report on how this historic scientific trial almost didn’t happen.
- — The identification in the lab of an effective immune system response involving “neutralizing antibodies” that kills most strains of HIV, pointing to potential vaccine targets.
These are good signs, indicating an effective HIV vaccine is indeed possible. But we’re probably still a long way off getting one, and not just because of the scientific challenges.
As always, one of the biggest barriers is money.
We (the world community, all of us in the Humanosphere) spend less than a billion dollars a year on HIV vaccine research — as compared to the $30 billion or so we spend treating people and dealing with the still-spreading AIDS pandemic.
“And we’re not keeping up,” said Catherine Hankins of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). “For every two people we put on treatment, another five people are still being newly infected.”
Alan Bernstein, executive director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, said there is new momentum and optimism about finding an effective vaccine against AIDS.
“But at the same time, funding for research has dropped,” Bernstein said. He noted that the U.S. government (NIH) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today are responsible for perhaps 80 percent of the world’s funding for HIV vaccine research.
That has to change, Bernstein said, if we are to speed up the search for the only real chance the world has of beating AIDS. More and more people are still getting infected, he said, and the cost of treating them is ballooning, creating a global moral and financial crisis.
“We’re on a treadmill and the pace is picking up,” Bernstein said. Business as usual will no longer be enough to even remain in place, he said. And true progress will require much more investment in the scientific quest for a vaccine.