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AIDS Vaccines at the Crossroads

Nearly 25 years into the AIDS pandemic, scientists are still looking for a vaccine. A new report explains why it remains elusive, despite more resources, greater cooperation and more in-depth scientific knowledge.

The report – AIDS Vaccines at the Crossroads – was published by the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, or AVAC. Executive Director Mitchell Warren says the fact that a vaccine has not been found yet is frustrating, but not surprising.

“One of the things that we’ve learned more than anything else over and over again in not only the search for AIDS vaccine but in the whole global response to this epidemic is that we are dealing with the nastiest possible virus that is so smart scientifically and in terms of what the virus does in the body. We are continually challenged. And it also challenges us on every political, social and cultural level in terms of the way the epidemic is spread,” he says.

Often, when researchers or health officials are asked when an AIDS vaccine will be found, the standard answer is five to ten years. Mr. Warren believes that’s a guess at best.

He says, “This idea of a decade is always out there, this timeline of an AIDS vaccine. And what we are really urging the field to do is to establish more realistic expectations that things may take five years, they may take ten years they may take twelve years. And simply saying things are going to happen isn’t enough. If things are going to take ten years, let’s just say it’s going to take ten years. And let’s ensure that it doesn’t take any longer than that.”

The head of AVAC says in the development of any vaccine, there’s a lag time between understanding the science behind a virus and the actual development of a vaccine.

“We certainly find reasons to be optimistic both because we are understanding more and more about what’s happening within the body and how this virus works. And I think that’s one of the things we ought to remind ourselves that although we don’t have a vaccine yet every single trial – and there have been dozens and dozens of vaccine trials over the last decade – and every one of those is advancing our scientific knowledge,” he says.

He says in the last five years, annual funding for AIDS vaccine research has risen from $350 million to about $700 million. Nevertheless, many researchers say at least one billion dollars needs to be spent annually.

Mr. Warren also says there is a greater sense of collaboration and cooperation among the world’s scientists and researchers. One of the ways this is being done is through the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, a two year old effort to create a collaborative umbrella organization to share knowledge.

The AIDS Vaccines at the Crossroads report also recommends that clinical trial leaders listen carefully to the concerns of civil society. It calls on them to integrate prevention, testing and treatment of HIV with clinical trials.

The New York-based AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition says it does not take money from the government or the pharmaceutical industry, adding it’s dedicated to speeding the ethical development and global delivery of an AIDS vaccine.