CAPE TOWN, South Africa – South Africa’s government joined Monday in launching a high-profile trial of an AIDS vaccine created by its own researchers — the first designed by a developing country — but the moment was marred by the lead researcher’s announcement it has actually halted funding its own project.
It was a jarring development in a nation whose politicians have a history of unscientific responses to the epidemic. Attempts to get an explanation from the government were not immediately successful.
Monday’s announcement was meant to be a proud occasion for a nation where politicians have a history of unscientific responses to the epidemic. But after a government minister lauded the project, Professor Anna-Lise Williamson, the scientist heading the research, said the state had pulled the plug on its funding.
Attempts to get an explanation from the government were not immediately successful.
Williamson of the University of Cape Town told The Associated Press that South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology had stopped funding her research this year and the state electric utility Eskom’s contract to provide funding ended last year and was not renewed.
She said the clinical vaccine trial that began Monday would continue with American money.
South Africa’s deputy science minister appeared at the ceremony launching the vaccine trial with Williamson and the deputy health minister praised her research, but neither their spokesmen nor Eskom immediately returned calls seeking comment about funding.
Global economic crisis
The ceremony came outside an international AIDS conference at which delegates have expressed concern about research and treatment funding being cut because of the global economic crisis. South Africa has not escaped the slowdown. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said in his budget speech earlier this month that revenues were falling and, though the government saw spending on health as a priority, it would shift spending from some areas to others seen as more crucial.
If South Africa has decided to spend money on other ways of fighting AIDS, it will not be alone. 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.
AIDS vaccine researchers have met so many disappointments that some activists question the wisdom of continuing such expensive investments, saying the money might be better spent on prevention and education.
Male circumcision, for example, has been shown to cut the risk of contracting the AIDS virus by as much as 60 percent. Circumcision has not had the kind of attention in South Africa’s campaign against AIDS it has had in neighboring countries like Swaziland.
South Africa was 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.
But in South Africa, the contrast Monday between the hopeful launch and the revelation of funding cuts raised questions about whether the government was backsliding on AIDS.
Aaron Motsoaledi, a respected doctor, became health minister in May. He has promised to try to strengthen AIDS prevention campaigns that had been weakened because of red tape and mixed messages from policy makers.
Even before Motsoaledi took over, the government was promising to sharply step up treatment programs, saying it wanted to provide AIDS drugs to 1.5 million people over the next three years — up from 700,000 at present. AIDS activists had to file repeated legal suits to force former President Thabo Mbeki, whom some call an AIDS denier, to provide AIDS drugs.
At Monday’s ceremony, one of 36 healthy volunteers was injected 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.
‘Incredibly important’ to keep working
Afterward, it seemed the hoopla, at least on the part of the South African government, might have been empty.
“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.”
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.
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’s vaccine also is being tested at a trial of 12 volunteers in Boston. The trial started in the U.S., perhaps partly to allay any criticism about using Africans as guinea pigs.
Some 250 scientists and technicians worked on the 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. paid to produce the vaccine.
He called it “the most important AIDS research partnership in the world.”
“There are extraordinary challenges ahead,” Fauci said, referring to the years of testing needed now that South Africa has reached the clinical trial stage.
Williamson, a virologist, said the scientists had to fight constant controversy, including international organizations that tried to stop 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.