New hunt for elusive Aids vaccine

The international scientific community is trying to inject new urgency and unity into the elusive hunt for an HIV/Aids vaccine, just weeks after trials with the most promising candidate to date were halted.

At a conference in Cape Town, Alan Bernstein, founder of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, was named on Thursday as the first executive director of the Global HIV-Vaccine Enterprise, an alliance of researchers and funders trying to find a vaccine against the virus, which currently infects more than 40-million people.

”I am absolutely confident there will be a vaccine, otherwise I wouldn’t have taken the job,” Bernstein said in a telephone interview, although he refused to speculate whether this would be in the next decade.

The United States and other developed countries have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on vaccine research. But given the failure of vaccine research so far, some experts say more emphasis should be placed on alternatives, such as male circumcision.

A World Health Organisation study showed earlier this year that circumcision reduced the risk of female-to-male transmission by about 60%. But only 30% of men worldwide have had the procedure, mostly in countries where it is common for religious or health reasons.

Despite the hope offered by circumcision, many governments in Africa — which bears the brunt of the disease — have been reluctant to embrace it as national policy because of cultural traditions.

Bernstein, who said he hoped to use his role in part to raise more funds from new donors, said he did not regard it as a case of vaccine research versus more research in other areas.

”We need to pursue all avenues and approaches towards prevention, including levers such as circumcision, condom usage and antiretroviral drugs for those people who have Aids,” he said.

Roughly 30 potential vaccines are in the pipeline. But none was so advanced as one developed by pharmaceutical giant Merck & Company. The company’s announcement last month that it was stopping mass trials after two dozen volunteers tested positive for HIV was therefore considered a massive setback.

Bernstein said the failure of the so-called STEP project proved the need for a coordinated global approach to research.

The vaccine enterprise was set up by 24 leading vaccine researchers in 2003 and has to date mobilised more than $750-million in support of its scientific plan, including from the US National Institute for Health. It has been based within the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, another one of its major backers, but will now have a small independent secretariat.

”The enterprise, under Dr Bernstein’s leadership, can bring new energy to the HIV-vaccine field and help us work together in a coordinated manner to tackle these major obstacles as quickly as possible,” said Anthony S Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in a statement. — Sapa-AP

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