U.S. downturn could hurt AIDS vaccine drive: group

By Wendell Roelf

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - A U.S. recession could cut AIDS funding and impede the drive to find a vaccine for the disease, a senior official with a group spearheading vaccine research said on Tuesday.

The United States is the center of AIDS vaccine research. Its government contributed $659 million, or 69 percent of the funds earmarked for research in 2007, according to data released at a global AIDS vaccine conference in Cape Town.

But a credit crunch has raised fears that the world’s richest economy could be headed for recession, prompting the U.S. government and private sector to cut funding to a broad range of programs, including AIDS research.

“If there is a downturn in the economy it’s going to potentially have a negative impact on funding for science in general and HIV vaccine research in particular,” Alan Bernstein, executive director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, told Reuters at the conference.

The conference — a gathering of many of the top names in HIV research — follows a year that saw scientists drop plans for widespread human testing of the two most promising vaccine prototypes due to safety concerns.

The AIDS virus infects an estimated 33 million people globally and has killed between 23 and 25 million since it was identified in the 1980s. Cocktails of anti-retroviral drugs can control the virus, but there is no cure.

The two stalled vaccines, one developed by drug giant Merck and the other by U.S. government researchers, both aimed to fight AIDS by jump-starting T-cells to tackle the virus and stop or slow the progress of HIV-related disease.

Early results from a large human trial of the Merck product were discouraging, and data showed the vaccine may have left some people more prone to HIV infection — halting the tests and prompting some scientists to reconsider the model.  Continued…

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