It is often said that we know more about HIV than any other virus, and it’s likely to be true. In the 1980’s a staggering amount of scientific research regarding the genome, viral receptors, transmission of HIV, and drug development – including the FDA’s approval of AZT was accomplished. Scientists were hopeful that a vaccine could be developed within a few years, and it seemed that HIV might soon become a problem of the past. However, there is still much to be learned about the virus – and we have yet to see a successful vaccine. Since the 1980’s billions of dollars have been allocated for HIV/AIDS research and drug development. For 2007 alone, 2.6 billion dollars was allocated by the federal government for research on HIV.
Funding for HIV research is higher than for any other virus. But is it in the right places?
Image coutesy of the National Institutes of Health
Most of the funding for HIV research today can be categorized as either marketable and cure-finding, or non-marketable. Marketable research includes research to find a vaccine, drug development, and microbicides. These can be called marketable because they include research that has a potentially huge payback in the form of drug sales or scientific reputation. Global vaccine funding in 2006 was a whopping 933 million dollars, with significant contributions from the NIH (around 600 million), the European Commission, and the Gates foundation. Drug development still takes the largest chunk of the NIH’s HIV research budget at a little over 620 million dollars. Global funding for microbicide development in 2006 was roughly 222 million dollars – significantly less, but still an extremely substantial proportion of HIV research in total. Alone, vaccine and microbicide development take the great majority of research funding both globally and domestically, leaving little for other, less marketable research. Research concerning prevention for at-risk populations and highly impacted communities (especially those in poor nations) remains lacking as compared to budget increases for microbicide development. Without the potential payback that drug sales and vaccine development present, research is much harder to fund and therefore, less gets done. Even though HIV is the most researched virus by any measure, there are still aspects of its actions that are both poorly understood and poorly funded.
2.6 billion dollars is a huge sum of money for research, and not all of it is used by labs operated by the government. The NIH awards some of their allocated budget to other laboratories (often academic laboratories), thereby increasing the amount of researchers involved in HIV science. What can we do with our budget? Recently researchers have experienced a huge setback in vaccine development, as the most advanced vaccine in drug trials was scrapped because test subjects with the vaccine were contracting AIDS at the same rate as a placebo group. With the failure of the most promising vaccine so far, researchers are less hopeful that a vaccine can even be developed. Microbicides are a more recent addition to the field and have become popular recently as an alternative to traditional vaccines, as they are meant to be applied before intercourse to prevent the virus from taking hold. In their proposed budget for 2008 (which differs little from the 2.9 billion dollar budget of 2007), the NIH notes microbicides as an exciting field of research that will receive the most increased funding of any area of research. No matter what the immediate outcome, it seems that we’ll be spending many more billions of dollars before research rewards us with a solution to the AIDS crisis.