Focus on HIV prevention, not vaccines: top AIDS researcher

Reacting to a survey of more than 35 leading AIDS scientists in Britain and the U.S, which found two-thirds of respondents believed an HIV vaccine would not be developed within the next 10 years, Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and president-elect of the International AIDS Society, called on the federal government to step up HIV prevention and treatment programs.

The survey, conducted by the U.K.'s The Independent newspaper, came after the devastating failure of a clinical trial by Merck, the global pharmaceutical company, of the most promising prototype HIV vaccine to date. In September, Merck halted two field tests of its vaccine after initial results indicated it was doing more harm than good.

“It kills me when I see this debate going about, ”˜Oh, will it take another five years until we get an effective vaccine?’?” Montaner told the Straight by phone. “I think I’ve been saying for a long time, even before the Merck vaccine collapsed, that we need to be realistic in terms of what we hope, what we expect, and what we can deliver.”

Instead of focusing efforts solely on the hunt for a vaccine (according to The Independent, the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease spends about $500 million on HIV-vaccine research each year), Montaner stressed the need to expand prevention, testing, and treatment programs.

“I get the impression that”¦many leaders around the world, unfortunately our own federal government, are happy to undress the prevention and treatment efforts to invest in a vaccine that, at the present time, remains a hypothetical benefit to our patients,” he said. Montaner explained that current treatment with HAART (highly active anti-retroviral therapy) can suppress the virus to such an extent that, theoretically, it can no longer be transmitted.

“There is no better transmitter of HIV than the person that is not aware that they are HIV-infected,” he said. “To my knowledge, very little is being done at the federal level to ensure we have an aggressive preventive campaign and an aggressive testing campaign”¦.So our prevention campaigns are lame; they are nonexistent, they are not aggressive, they are not graphic enough, they are not recurrent enough. Our efforts for HIV testing are lame.”

In a reference to InSite, Vancouver’s supervised injection site whose exemption from federal narcotics law expires on June 30, he added: “Our harm reduction approaches are pathetic and the interference of the federal government on our ability to expand harm reduction programs is a matter of national debate at the present time.”