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Word on Aids vaccine is patience

Pantaleo says promising clinical trials don't mean an Aids vaccine is around the corner

(Keystone)

Giuseppe Pantaleo, an Aids vaccine researcher at Lausanne University Hospital, tells swissinfo that protection against HIV infection is still some way off.

But Pantaleo says that Europe should take the hunt for a vaccine more seriously and follow the example of the United States.

The Lausanne researcher was attending an international Aids vaccine conference in Montreal to take stock of the latest advances in the search.

In July the United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids warned that longer-term solutions for combating the disease were needed, including a vaccine.

Around the world, an estimated 40 million people live with HIV and last year 3.1 million died of Aids. The number of new infections in 2004 was 4.9 million.

swissinfo: Do you feel there has been any progress made towards developing an Aids vaccine?

Giuseppe Pantaleo: I don't think we should set a timeframe for a vaccine. I think we have to consider the problem differently. We have two or three products which look promising and which will undergo clinical trials to evaluate their potential. We have two possible vaccines that are about to undergo advanced trials, but it could be seven or eight years before we get conclusive results about a product's effectiveness.

swissinfo: What problems are there in developing a vaccine?

G.P.: There are still major obstacles before we find a truly effective vaccine. We have to find out how to stimulate the production of antibodies that will attack the human immunodeficiency virus and neutralise it. We have no clear idea how to proceed today. That's the major challenge.

The vaccines being trialled now attack infected cells and cannot block infection by HIV.

swissinfo: Is there enough support for vaccine research?

G.P.: There is a major difference between research funding in the United States and Europe. The US government is supplying around $650 million (SFr809 million) a year for vaccine research and the Gates Foundation [created by Bill Gates of Microsoft] is going to give another $400 million over the next five years. The United Nations recently estimated that the US gives 86 per cent of all funding for an Aids vaccine, whereas Europe is only supplying ten to 12 per cent. So one side is responding to a problem, while the other is totally absent.

Investigators in the US have seen their resources increase significantly, whereas the European Union seems to have underestimated the problem since there is no long-term programme for vaccine research in Europe.

swissinfo: Are researchers bothering to collaborate properly? Scientists are notoriously shy about sharing their findings.

G.P.: Researchers have been collaborating more over the past couple of years. The Gates Foundation launched a programme to set up the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise. The aim wasn't just to increase available resources, but mainly to improve international coordination of research.

The idea is to avoid duplicating research and reinforce synergies. There is a lot more coordination now and the Gates Foundation wants to help create a series of virtual research centres around the world. But the Foundation demands strict coordination between the members of these centres.

It is definitely necessary for researchers to move towards better cooperation because the problems we are tackling are complex and require big resources. So collaboration and coordination are needed because you can't work all alone in a small isolated laboratory.

swissinfo-interview: Scott Capper

Key facts

According to UNAids, the number of people living with HIV has been rising in every region, with the steepest increases occurring in East Asia, Central Asia and eastern Europe.
Sub-Saharan Africa remains the worst affected region. It is home to more than 60% of all people living with HIV and three-quarters of all women living with the virus.

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In brief

Giuseppe Pantaleo is head of the immunology and allergy unit at Lausanne University Hospital.

He has already conducted a preliminary trial of an Aids vaccine developed by the EuroVacc consortium with promising results.

The vaccine was well tolerated and provoked an immune response in almost 45 per cent of the volunteers who took part in testing in Lausanne and London.

A more extensive trial was launched in February.

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