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Incentives needed to boost HIV, flu vaccines

The threat posed by bird flu highlighted the folly of not taking a long-term approach towards vaccines, says Dr Berkley.

india Updated: Jan 25, 2006 19:28 IST
Reuters
Reuters
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Greater economic incentives are needed for companies to accelerate development of vaccines against killers like AIDS and bird flu, according to the head of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative.

Dr Seth Berkley, president of the non-profit group, said the threat posed by bird flu highlighted the folly of not taking a long-term approach towards vaccines.

The world is ill-prepared to make large quantities of flu shot that will be needed if avian flu triggers a human pandemic, as many scientists fear, because few companies remain in the business and there has been no investment in modern production methods.

Flu vaccine is still made laboriously in chicken eggs, rather than in cell-based manufacturing systems that are widely used for producing other biotechnology products.

"The whole system for vaccines is not aligned properly," Berkley told Reuters. "We have to find better ways to accelerate research, to finance research and to create incentives for pharmaceutical companies."

He plans to lobby for such commitments in discussions with policymakers at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos this week.

With 4.9 million new HIV infections in 2005 alone, scientists agree a vaccine is desperately needed to end the AIDS epidemic.

G-8 PROMISES

The G-8 group of industrialised nations noted AIDS vaccines as a priority area during its meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland, in 2005. But Berkley said it was the sixth time the group had expressed support, and implementing such promises remained a critical requirement.

Changes were needed both to push forward good scientific ideas and to pull big drug makers into the field, by offering them advanced purchase commitments that would guarantee a market for any products developed, he said.

Although more than 30 HIV/AIDS vaccines are now being tested in clinical trials around the world, Berkley said there would not be a useable product on the market until the next decade, even in a best-case scenario.

The first-ever large-scale AIDS vaccine trial was completed in 2003, but it failed to provide protection.

Since then, Merck & Co Inc has reported encouraging early-stage results with an experimental vaccine, called MRKAd5, prompting it to expand testing last year.

Doubts remain, however, as to how well Merck's vaccine, which uses a common-cold virus to carry HIV genes into human cells, would work in the developing world.

Another problem is that all the most advanced AIDS vaccine candidates use a similar approach, known as cell mediation, and Berkley said there was an urgent need to study other approaches as well, notably antibody-based vaccines.

That will require more money, and Berkley repeated his call for annual global investment in AIDS vaccines to be doubled to at least $1.2 billion a year.