As the catalyst for the call to halt U.S. government funding of AIDS vaccine research, I was somewhat dismayed by The Times’ recent editorial, “Revamping AIDS vaccine research,” which took issue with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s position without fully understanding it.
Our position is this: In light of over 20 years of failed AIDS vaccine research on which billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer money have been spent, we believe it is simply unconscionable for the U.S. government to continue such wasteful funding while millions worldwide die for want of access to the AIDS research breakthrough that occurred more than 10 years ago -- life-saving antiretroviral treatment.
There are not just two or three AIDS vaccine candidates that have failed. Every AIDS vaccine candidate to date has failed. Leading scientists, including Nobel Prize winner Dr. David Baltimore, have even gone so far as noting that we are no closer to the discovery of an AIDS vaccine today than we were 20 years ago.
In fact, not only have all the AIDS vaccine candidates failed, the latest was hurriedly pulled from clinical trial after the vaccine was found to actually put people at a significantly increased risk of contracting HIV. Twenty-seven years into the AIDS pandemic, countless billions in taxpayer (and private) vaccine funding later, and our leading researchers can’t even meet the most fundamental tenet to “do no harm.”
Meanwhile, as AIDS vaccine candidates repeatedly fail, consensus continues to build that successful antiretroviral treatment offers a vaccine-like effect -- rendering most HIV-positive people noninfectious. This treatment offers a far more enduring benefit than anything that AIDS vaccine research has or will offer. At the same, more than 33 million people worldwide continue to live with -- and die from -- HIV/AIDS. Barely 2 million in the developing world have access to the treatment that we know works to save lives -- and reduces the likelihood of transmission.
The Times’ editorial mentions the billions the U.S. gives to AIDS research and relief. While at first blush this seems like a generous amount, this funding provides treatment and support services for only a small fraction of the people worldwide living with HIV/AIDS who may be in need. With lifesaving antiretroviral treatment costing as little as $300 per patient per year in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world, the $700 million or so the U.S. currently spends annually on fruitless AIDS vaccine research could save an additional 2.3 million lives around the world each year. As successful antiretroviral treatment renders people less infectious, it would also help break the chain of new infections globally and bring the number of new infections down.
To be clear, what the AIDS Healthcare Foundation called for last week is a halt to U.S. government funding of AIDS vaccine research. Private donors and foundations may continue to fund whatever vaccine research they may deem appropriate. Regarding The Times’ support for the NIH getting back to basic research (which the NIH appeared to commit to last week), Times’ readers -- and writers -- should know that the NIH already funds basic AIDS research to the tune of several hundred million dollars per year, separate from its $700 million annually in AIDS vaccine research funding.
Early next week, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation will call on congressional leaders in Washington to demand a Government Accountability Office report on the history and current state of AIDS vaccine research. It is our hope that through the lens of dispassionate third-party investigators, a clearer light will be shone on the folly of government largesse continuing to blindly fund AIDS vaccine research.
Currently, the AIDS vaccine establishment continues its taxpayer-funded, repeatedly unsuccessful search for a preventive AIDS vaccine while an alternative many have seen work on multiple levels -- successful antiretroviral treatment as both treatment and prevention -- goes unchampioned.
This is why the AIDS Healthcare Foundation believes that it is time to pull the plug on U.S. taxpayer financing of the search for a vaccine, and leave it to private donors to back what has been and continues to appear to be a fruitless goal. To continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in a government-funded search for an AIDS vaccine in the vain hope of success someday while millions worldwide suffer and die is simply unacceptable when other currently available strategies offer practical -- and effective -- alternatives.
Michael Weinstein is president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation