S. Africa Stops Funding for AIDS Vaccine

Dr. Danielle Crida, left, demonstrates Monday how a new AIDS vaccine is administrated on a trial subject, Wanda Mbele, at the Emavundleni Centre in the Crossroads township on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa. The leading scientist of the first AIDS vaccine created in a developing country says South Africa's government has stopped funding even as the country launches clinical trials.
AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam
South Africa has stopped funding research on an AIDS vaccine, a leading scientist said Monday, even as a major vaccine trial on humans began in the country ravaged by the world's worst AIDS epidemic.

Anna-Lise Williamson, an AIDS researcher at the University of Cape Town, told The Associated Press that the clinical vaccine trial that began Monday would continue with U.S. money. But she said South Africa's Department of Science and Technology had stopped funding her research this year and the utility Eskom's contract for funding ended last year and was not renewed.

Even though South Africa's science minister appeared at a ceremony launching the vaccine trial with Williamson and lauded her research, neither he nor Eskom immediately returned calls seeking comment about funding.

At the ceremony, one of 36 healthy volunteers was injected Monday before officials and journalists in Cape Town's Crossroads shantytown. The event was also attended by American health officials who gave technical help and manufactured the vaccine at the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

"For vaccine development presently, the South African AIDS Vaccine initiative has no money," Williamson said. "If we do not continue working on this, we will never have a vaccine... 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.

During nearly 10 years of government 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.

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.

A new report says HIV vaccine research funding worldwide decreased for the first time since 2000, with investments of almost $1.2 billion in 2008, down 10 percent from 2007.

South Africa was also 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.

South African scientists working on the latest vaccine had to overcome deep skepticism 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.

"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.

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

The trial started in the U.S., partly to allay any criticism that the United States was collaborating in an AIDS vaccine that would use Africans as guinea pigs.

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.

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

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. 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 U.S. The U.S. 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.

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

Mbewu said the crisis in South Africa more than justifies the expenditure on AIDS research. AIDS strikes men and women alike in Africa, where the epidemic is fueled by the many people who have sex with several people at the same time.

In the 1990s, South Africa's then-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 organizations that tried to stop the state utility Eskom from funding the project. Eskom gave "huge amounts" regardless, she said.

"International organizations 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.

On the Web:

South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative:
HIV Vaccines and Microbicides Resource Tracking Working Group: