Vaccine plan could save six million lives

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The Independent Online

Atusha is 37 but looks twice her age. Wheezing into an oxygen mask and clutching her one-year-old son, she tested positive for HIV two years ago.

Atusha is 37 but looks twice her age. Wheezing into an oxygen mask and clutching her one-year-old son, she tested positive for HIV two years ago.

Until recently she lived in Uvira, a four-hour drive south of Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, unaware that medical science could have helped her. By the time she arrived at a Médecins Sans Frontières clinic her immune system had been weakened and she had developed tuberculosis.

Weak, unable to talk, her eyes barely focusing, Atusha languishes, her son in her arms, waiting to die. It is too late for Atusha, but, yesterday, Gordon Brown offered hope in the fight against Aids in Africa. The Chancellor of the Exchequer held out the prospect of a viable Aids vaccine being developed as part of a $10bn (£5.3bn) a year programme to end the devastating trail of the disease. A total of $100bn by 2015.

Vastly increased investment in research could save six million people by cutting three years off the likely timescale for developing a vaccine to combat the HIV virus, he said. The United Nations estimates that HIV/Aids has infected 39.4 million people and killed 3.1 million in the past year alone. In a speech aimed at increasing support for his plans to double annual aid to the Third World in the years up to 2015, Mr Brown, starting a tour of Africa, appealed to Western powers to sign up to his proposals to raise international aid by $50bn a year.

He said the world should make fighting HIV and Aids one of its top priorities by devoting a fifth of the money to research and treatment. Mr Brown has spent two years seeking support for his international finance facility (IFF), which aims to double funds for international development. The scheme, the cornerstone of Britain's plans to tackle global poverty during its presidency of the G8, aims to "lever in" funds by using long-term commitments on aid funding from wealthy countries to allow additional money to be raised on the international markets.

Mr Brown also called on the West to pledge to buy 300 million doses of a future Aids vaccine. Mr Brown believes such a guarantee would create a $6bn market for the drug and ensure that the pharmaceutical industry pours in the necessary funds for research and development. At present, £400m is spent each year on research into an effective vaccine for HIV, only £60m of which comes from the private sector.

Speaking last night at the High Commission in Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital, Mr Brown said: "My ambition, and the Government's, is that by 2015 as a result of investing in research there will be a preventative vaccine [for HIV].

"If we just keep spending at the current level we could expect to have a partially effective vaccine for the developing world, one that could save 40 million lives and around $900bn over the subsequent decades, only by 2015 at best or more likely 2020, 15 years from now.

"But if by doubling research and development spending over the next five to 10 years we could bring forward the discovery of an Aids vaccine by three years and we could save six million lives ... future HIV/Aids treatment costs could be reduced by $2bn a year."

Calling for a "comprehensive plan", the Chancellor said he would announce next month a system of international collaboration for scientists, modelled on the project to map the human genome, to ensure that the world's research community could maximise its efforts.

The Chancellor also called for more support for efforts to supply Third World countries with antiretroviral drugs for people already infected, and unveiled a £150m commitment to help children orphaned by the disease.

He said he had the support of 50 nations, including France, Italy, Sweden and the Nordic states, for the IFF. The Treasury has yet to persuade the US to sign up to the deal, but Mr Brown insisted his proposals for increasing aid could be put into operation even if the whole developed world did not sign up.

The scheme is designed to raise billions of dollars to allow the world to meet its Millennium Development Goals for 2015, which aim to halve extreme poverty, give all children access to primary education and improve health for millions of people.

The Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria warmly welcomed Mr Brown's proposals. Professor Richard Fearchem, its executive director, said: "Gordon Brown's ideas are big and bold; just what we need to win the war against this virus. Without the IFF, we cannot conquer Aids, TB or malaria and we cannot achieve the other Millennium Development Goals."

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