Science

Lewis confident in HIV vaccine funding announcement

Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates and Prime Minister Stephen Harper are expected to announce joint financing plans on Tuesday to test a possible vaccine for HIV.

Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates and Prime Minister Stephen Harper are expected to announce joint financing plans on Tuesday to test a possible vaccine for HIV.

Stephen Lewis, the former UN secretary-general's special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, said it is important to fund all aspects of research, including antiretroviral treatment and a vaccine. ((CBC))

It is expected that the vaccine funding announcement will be made in Ottawa when Gates visits the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

"Gates doesn't put a significant amount of money into vaccine research unless he's absolutely certain that it might yield something down the road," Stephen Lewis, the former UN secretary-general's special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, told CBC Newsworld on Monday.

"They are scrupulous, the Bill Gates Foundation, in their assessment of what will work and what will not work. So this is an important step forward, and I honour the government of Canada for being a part of it."

Both the previous Liberal government and the current Conservative government have helped to fund the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative.

In an exclusive interview with Peter Mansbridge, chief correspondent of CBC News, Gates said he also anticipates a vaccine for HIV in his lifetime.

"This money is going to be spent on some very important causes in this century, and of the top 20 diseases that create the inequity, we will have either had drugs or vaccines to virtually eliminate most all of those," Gates said on Feb. 9. "AIDS is the toughest, but certainly in my lifetime, I'd be very surprised if we don't have a vaccine."

Tuesday's appearance will be another chance for the prime minister to address the AIDS issue. Last summer, Harper was criticized for not attending the International AIDS Conference in Toronto, where frontline workers, heads of state and scientists talked about issues including the search for a vaccine, the stigma around HIV and AIDS and circumcision as a form of prevention.

There was speculation that Harper would use the conference to announce new AIDS funding, but he said it wouldn't be the right time to make announcements because the issue had become "so politicized" during the week. Three cabinet ministers, including Health Minister Tony Clement attended the conference, along with Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean.

The federal government has yet to demonstrate that it is willing to fight HIV on other fronts, such as funding the developing of an anti-retroviral drug to export to developing countries— an idea that has been on the books for four years, Lewis said.

It is important to fund all aspects of research: from antiretroviral treatment to keep people alive, to the search for microbicides to help protect women, to a vaccine, he added.

Microbicide setback

In one area of researchhoped fight HIV/AIDS, scientists are developing vaginal microbicides, whichare aimed at preventingsexual transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections when applied topically. Scientists hope that women could be encouraged to apply them without their partner's knowledge, to reduce the risk of infection when men refuse to wear condoms.

However, in January, researchers halted studies in Africa and India of a microbicide developed in Canada after women using the gel showed a higher risk of infection rather than lower.

A microbicidelikely won't be available for use for at least five years, and a vaccine 10 years, Lewis said, because HIV is so artful at outwitting scientific efforts.

The halted trial was a setback, but three other microbicide products are being tested in trials and others are in the pipeline, hesaid.

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