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AIDS Vaccine 2003 Conference Opens - 2003-09-18

In New York, the AIDS Vaccine 2003 Conference gets underway Thursday. Researchers will reveal what progress is being made to stem the tide of the pandemic which has infected more than 42-million people and killed over 20-million. VOA’s Joe De Capua is attending the conference.

The AIDS vaccine conference brings together about one thousand researchers, doctors, public health and pharmaceutical company officials, as well as policymakers.

One of those following developments is Dr. Seth Berkley, head of the non-profit organization, IAVI, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative.

He says, "Well, IAVI’s goal is to try to ensure the development of a vaccine and make sure it’s accessible to all those who need it. So the challenge there is not only to try to drive the science forward, but make sure the policies are in place to move forward. So, at this conference we’ll be having a number of scientific presentations. But also it’s an opportunity to work with other organizations and trying to move the whole agenda forward."

IAVI is Seth Berkley’s creation. It invests in companies and programs working on promising vaccine ideas. In return for IAVI’s support, its partners must promise to make any successful vaccines available to the developing world at affordable prices.

Many experts say an AIDS vaccine is still five to ten years away. Dr. Berkley says that estimate is reflected in the amount of testing that’s been done.

He says, "Well, first of all, I think the most important thing for your listeners to hear is that, in fact, in the 22 years since the virus first appeared and since it was discovered a few years later, there’s only been one vaccine that’s been tested anywhere in the world to see if it works. There have been a lot of candidates that have been moved forward, but only one that has gone thru all stages of testing. So this is really a global problem. And the challenge for us now is to accelerate that."

He blames the slow pace on two problems. The first, he says, is a tough scientific challenge – the second is a lack of political will to make it a priority.

Dr. Berkley says, "Given the fact that we haven’t had large amounts of financing for it – and there hasn’t been a sense of urgency that is necessary to really make this happen quickly. Instead of working sequentially, we should be moving vaccines together in parallel. And we should be using every group in the world, who has any possibility to help us in trying to move this forward."

He estimates about 500 million dollars a year is spent on AIDS vaccine research. He would prefer if that figure was one to two billion dollars a year.

The head of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative says there are two main approaches to finding a vaccine. One attempts to use the immune system’s anti-bodies to attack HIV by binding to it, making it harmless and allowing the immune system to dispose of it. In other words, getting rid of HIV before infection takes hold.

The other method is called cell mediated and that’s where most of the research is now focused.

He says, "Cell mediated immunity is the other arm of the immune system, which goes ahead and take a cell which is already infected by something that’s foreign to the body, in this case it would HIV, and destroys that cell. What that implies is that the infection has already happened and, of course with this virus since it can sit dormant, that means the person is infected. So the conventional wisdom is that cell mediated immunity can check the virus in check but not stop people from actually keeping that infection."

U-S health officials had once predicted an AIDS vaccine would be on the market by 1989. They believed HIV/AIDS would be defeated the way polio and smallpox was. It’s proven more elusive.