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HIV vaccine funding woes

4th April 2008

A key HIV vaccine research initiative in South Africa is running into major problems through lack of money, officials say.

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The South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative (SAAVI) is a public-private joint venture set up in 1999 to coordinate the testing and development of HIV vaccines.

Founded by the country's Medical Research Centre, SAAVI is now facing the expiry of existing funding contracts, and the withdrawal of a key sponsor, whose funding accounts for one third of its annual budget.

South Africa's state electricity company Eskom announced recently that it would not renew its US$1.86 million yearly funding.

In an announcement by Andrew Epzinger, chairman of Eskom's Development Foundation, which oversees Eskomgrants, the company said it now wanted to focus its attention on communities affected by new power stations.

Some of SAAVI's vaccine development and testing activities have been terminated, until funding can be found, according to the centre's communications manager Michelle Galloway.

Meanwhile, SAAVI was currently negotiating the renewal of other contracts with major funding providers, including the Department of Science and Technology, which has said it wants to re-assess the initiative before committing any more funding. The ministry currently provides around US$1.86 million annually.

SAAVI, which has been without a full-time director for the past three years owing to a lack of suitable candidates, has already received verbal assurances from the Department of Health that its US$1.24 million annual funding contribution will continue.

The difficulties come amid a series of setbacks for HIV vaccine research. Private funding is particularly hard to come by, as vaccine development can take several years, and returns on investments are not guaranteed.

AIDS researchers have called for bold scientific leadership and a redirection of resources into a broader effort, with less funding for clinical trial sites and more funding for other HIV prevention strategies.

According to Salim Karim, head of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA), a carefully considered long-term scientific approach is needed to find new directions in the development of HIV vaccines.

He said SAAVI currently lacked the necessary leadership to rise to this challenge, and was not high up enough in the research hierarchy to implement any such change.

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