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South African Government Still in Denial? And Overlooked HIV Breakthrough?

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

Recently a full-page ad appeared in newspapers across South Africa, bearing this banner:

Clinical researchers Malegapuru W. Makgoba, Salim S. Abdool Karim, and Hoosen M. Coovadia celebrated that finally, in January 2012, they had overcome nine years of AIDS denialism and bureaucratic boundaries to get routine access to Nevirapine introduced into use by HIV positive breastfeeding mothers. Though their own ground-breaking research in 2003 demonstrated that this cheap, simple intervention could spare tens of thousands of babies the scourge of HIV infection, the government of then-President Thabo Mbeki refused to allow the therapy. Mbeki did not believe that HIV caused disease, and his Minister of Health claimed a mass conspiracy among drug makers aimed to con countries into buying their medicines. When the German manufacturer of Nevirapine offered the drug free to South Africa, the Mbeki government still found reason to block its use.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal team fought a series of legal battles in South African courts, continuing throughout the Mbeki years and through the presidency of Jacob Zuma.

This month babies of HIV positive mothers throughout South Africa can be protected from the virus, thanks to this final victory. The battle fought by these three researchers demonstrates that science must be willing to get political when lives are on the line.

Overlooked HIV Breakthrough?

Other HIV victories all too often are ignored these days, as energy is focused on acquiring resources for universal access to HIV treatment with available therapy. But there is good news, as microbicide and vaccine work marches on.

We were recently struck by a CalTech HIV vaccine study reported in Nature. A team led by Nobel laureate David Baltimore used humanized mice (in lieu of primates) to test a novel HIV vaccination approach. A single injection produced lasting, 100 percent protective neutralizing antibody response against HIV. Anti-HIV, broadly-neutralizing antibody genes were grafted into an adeno-like parvovirus vector. Essentially, the mice were injected with the blueprints necessary to make appropriate immune responses against whole HIV viruses. The response from the humanized mouse immune systems was so profound that doses of HIV that were roughly 100 times those a human might be exposed to sexually failed to infect the animals.

Baltimore tells us that he is so encouraged by the results that his team will soon begin human clinical trials of the potential vaccine.

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