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We Must Invest in an AIDS Vaccine

1 August 2014

By Baroness Gould of Potternewton, Co-Chair of the Sexual Heath Forum and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual Health

Baroness GouldThis Tuesday I was fortunate to observe first-hand the work being done to develop an HIV/AIDS vaccine, here in London at a laboratory at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.

This work is being carried out by the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI). Since 1998, they have been co-ordinating and leading clinical trials with partners across the world to find the approaches and compounds with the most potential. We were welcomed by Dr Martin McMorrow and Dr Phillip Bergen, who explained the scale of the challenge facing their team: the HIV virus varies far more widely between strains, and between countries, than any other infectious disease we are fighting.

The need for an HIV/AIDs vaccine cannot be doubted. As Co-Chair of the Sexual Heath Forum and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual Health, I have long been convinced of the severity of the burden that this disease places on communities in the UK and overseas.

HIV/AIDS kills 1.6 million people a year, making it the most deadly infectious disease globally. It disproportionally affects those in developing countries, and people who are in their most productive years. In doing so, it deprives these countries of workers and caregivers, and increases healthcare costs.

Groups who already have less voice in society are also more at risk from HIV. 57% of new infections globally are in women, who often have less say in decisions that affect their sexual health such as whether to use a condom. AIDS is now the leading cause of death for women of child-bearing age in sub-Saharan Africa. Due to how the disease is transmitted, prevalence rates among gay men are much higher than in the adult population. Worryingly, some governments are now introducing laws to make it even harder to reach gay men by further criminalising same-sex relations.

It has been encouraging to see increased efforts and partnerships inflate the number of people who can access treatment to nearly 10 million a year – such as through the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria. I am proud that the last Labour Government was a leading supporter of this work, and glad that the current Government have upheld the UK commitment. The spread of the disease has now slowed – but it will not be controlled without further bold decisions.

No disease in history has ever been controlled without a vaccine. Half of the HIV-positive population still does not know their status, and for every three people who access treatment, another four acquire HIV. Nor do we have the resources to control this disease through treatment alone, though it is a very important part of the solution. Ultimately, vaccines are much cheaper and more effective, and when used in conjunction with treatment and education, could spell the end for HIV/AIDS.

As Dr Bergen explained, the science may be challenging but it is producing exciting results. Clinical trials in 2009 found compounds that acted to create ‘neutralising antibodies’ that can stop infected cells reproducing, and subsequent work has refined this approach. IAVI has set up partnerships with private companies to develop any compounds identified in the next stages of its research.

I was concerned however, to hear that funding from the UK Government to IAVI has fallen in recent years, from £40 million from 2008 to 2013, to just £5 million in this current period. While it is both important and laudable to fund treatments that save lives now, it is also important to fund the research and development that will create the drugs to control these diseases in the long term.

It seems apparent that the current model of funding drug research and development has left us waiting on private companies to deliver these new drugs. For the so-called ‘neglected diseases of poverty’ like HIV/AIDs, TB and Malaria, which kill 14 million people a year between them but offer no short-term returns on investment, we may be waiting for a very long time. On the other hand, partnerships between Government, private companies, and philanthropic foundations (so-called ‘Product Development Partnerships’ such as IAVI) have been producing results, as they combine government-backed investment and interest in public health needs with the capital and capacity of the private sector.

Partnerships such as IAVI require significant long-term investment and support, and we need the UK Government – and other governments – to show leadership and pledge this support. A Labour Government with Jim Murphy leading our development work has already nailed its colours to the mast. We have pledged to support fairness around the world, with good health and the benefits it brings central to this vision. We will need an HIV/AIDS vaccine to turn this vision into reality, and so I for one am calling on all Parties to support IAVI and partnerships like them.

For more information about IAVI and their work, visit www.iavi.org.

For information about the importance of supporting research and development of drugs for diseases of poverty, such as HIV/AIDS – and about the ways we can do this, such as Product Development Partnerships – please visit www.results.org.uk.

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