“We need to turn the knob toward [basic scientific] discovery” Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a meeting of more than 300 AIDS researchers and government officials, according to the Washington Post.
Officials arranged the meeting after last September’s failure of a major vaccine trial funded by NIAID and developed by the pharmaceutical company Merck.
Researchers had spent 10 years and millions of dollars developing the vaccine, which used a deactivated version of the common cold to deliver some HIV proteins to the immune system.
But in two clinical trials, the vaccine not only failed to protect people from HIV, it actually may have made them more susceptible to infection. Researchers don’t yet know why this occurred.
The trial is the latest in a string of vaccine failures stretching back two decades. Developing an AIDS vaccine has proven particularly difficult because vaccines normally stimulate the body’s own immune system to defend against a disease, but the HIV virus attacks the immune system itself.
“Despite hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, the reality in 2008 is that an HIV vaccine clearly remains beyond our grasp,” University of California, San Francisco professor and summit co-chair Warner C. Greene told attendees, according to the Baltimore Sun. “The HIV vaccine field is clearly at a critical crossroads.”
Some activists have called for the government to scrap AIDS vaccine research altogether, and instead invest in AIDS prevention and treatment.
“Twenty-five years into the epidemic and 20-plus years of vaccine research and we are no closer to a vaccine,” AIDS Healthcare Foundation spokesman Ged Kenslea told the Sun. “We just don’t think our tax dollars should be going to something that doesn’t have much hope.
But at the Tuesday meeting, Fauci strongly rejected that argument, saying instead that the agency would reexamine every project funded by its more than $1 billion in AIDS research money, and would likely redirect money from large clinical trials to the basic laboratory research necessary to understand the virus better.
“Under no circumstances will we stop AIDS vaccine research,” he said.