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How Close Are We To an AIDS Vaccine?

Today's blog from Gavin Stedman-Bryce, Consultant for the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. Saturday May 18 is International AIDS Vaccine Day!

This year's World AIDS Vaccine Day coincides with the post-Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) G8 meeting, which will be held in Ireland in June. The UK prime minister is one of three co-chairs of the high level panel set up by the secretary general of the UN, Ban Ki-moon. Members of the panel have the challenging task of looking at where the existing MDGs have had the greatest impact - where most gains have been made - and where the greatest needs remain. The world will be watching as the panel prioritises the multitude of competing issues.

For the last 13 years MDG 6 – which pledges to combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and TB - has played a vital galvanising role for action on meeting the global HIV challenge. We have seen significant progress, with over eight million people in low- and middle-income countries accessing life-saving antiretroviral treatment, and a reduction in new HIV infections by half, but we have a great distance yet to travel. Mathematical modelling from the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) shows that without continued progress in HIV prevention, population growth will overtake recent trends of declining HIV incidence. This means that without rapid scale up of current HIV prevention strategies and innovation to develop an AIDS vaccine, the pandemic appears unsustainable.

There is no question that vaccines have the power to save and improve lives, no pandemic in history has ever been controlled without one. Yet vaccine development can take decades of laboratory and clinical research and scientifically informed trial and error. The good news is that today most HIV researchers believe that the pertinent question is no longer whether an AIDS vaccine can be developed, but when that will happen, and how quickly such a vaccine will be rolled out. Much progress has been made but finishing the job will require sustained investment. It is vital that post-MDGs leaders make a renewed commitment to health research and development, including the commitment to develop an AIDS vaccine.

IAVI exists to spur the development of an effective, preventive AIDS vaccine and to get it into the arms of those who need it most. Together with others engaged in the search for an AIDS vaccine, they face one of the greatest scientific enterprises of our time. While the challenge may be great, the rewards are too. Vaccines are one of the most cost effective global public health tools we have. DFID's investment in GAVI is testament to this. DFID has invested in the development of an AIDS vaccine, including through IAVI, as part of a broader research portfolio through multi-year grants since 1998. However, there are signs that DFID funding for this effort, as well as others supported from the same research and development budget line, is under threat. It is crucial that DFID continues to ensure sufficient funding to organisations such as IAVI, resisting the temptation to cut funding levels which could harm the pace and intensity of scientific advances. Modelling from IAVI has shown that even under conservative assumptions a 70 per cent effective vaccine could avert 8.9 million infections over ten years, and could save between £9.2 billion and £62 billion in averted treatment costs in the first decade alone.

Today on World AIDS Vaccine Day we are reminded that persistence and determination has already been rewarded with millions of people accessing vital vaccines that offer protection from measles, pneumonia and cancer-causing viruses, among others. Now let's imagine that AIDS takes its rightful place on that list of preventable diseases. Imagine a world without AIDS this World AIDS Vaccine Day. That day is possible if we can convince world leaders to stay the course, invest in science and give global health the 'shot in the arm' that it needs.