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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Flickers of Hope in Fight on AIDS

BARCELONA, Spain -- In the last two years, the world has awakened to the AIDS tragedy and what it takes to bring it under control, but there is no indication that the epidemic is leveling off worldwide and strategies known to prevent the spread are still grossly underused, the UN's AIDS chief said.

In its first full day Monday, the weeklong conference also heard of scientific developments that could offer hope of containing an epidemic the United Nations says could kill 70 million people in the next 20 years.

A U.S. biotechnology company said a preventive vaccine against HIV/AIDS could be available by 2005 if results from human safety and efficacy trials were as good as expected.

Two other firms released data on a revolutionary AIDS drug that stops HIV from entering cells. It may offer new hope to thousands of patients resistant to current therapies.

"From a historical perspective, we are still in the early days of the epidemic," said Dr. Peter Piot, executive director of the UN AIDS program. "There are no indications that the AIDS epidemic is leveling off, not even in the most affected countries."

Piot said it is clear that in China, the former Soviet Union and other countries in Asia that HIV is now really getting off the ground. In Russia, reported cases have increased by more than 15 times in three years.

"The major challenge we have is growing in scale -- expanding to more regions the strategies known to work -- and for those countries where HIV is starting to expand, to make sure, by intervening early enough, that they don't go the way that Africa has gone," Piot said.

"AIDS is starting to destabilize entire nations in Africa. A destabilized part of the world, however far away it may be from where you are is having an impact on your own country," he said.

Last year, 1 million children in Africa lost their teacher because of AIDS, Piot said.

However, Piot said progress has been made since the last International AIDS Conference, held at ground zero of the pandemic in Durban, South Africa, two years ago.

"Durban was the beginning of a wake-up call and since then a lot of things have happened," he said. "We are moving into an era where AIDS has become a top global issue in politics."

"That will was not there six years ago. It started appearing in many countries over the last two years," Piot said. "In March I met with the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. The fact that he was willing to see me ... we had a discussion, it was on national TV. This would have been impossible before."

On the scientific front, the California-based developer of a preventive AIDS vaccine, VaxGen Inc., said it was optimistic it will work, although early results from the world's first Phase III trials of such a vaccine will not be available until early next year.

"I think we will get protection but I don't know what level we will get," said VaxGen president Donald Francis.

Francis said the vaccine used a standard approach and worked in chimpanzees.

"We expect to see in humans what we have seen in animal studies," he said. "If all goes well it could be available by end of 2004 or early 2005."

VaxGen's AIDS vaccine works by inducing the immune system to produce antibodies that attach to the gp120 protein on the surface of the virus. The theory is that it will prevent the virus from attaching to cells and block infection.

The company is testing the vaccine on 5,400 high-risk volunteers in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico and the Netherlands to see if it can stop sexual transmission of HIV.

A similar trial in Thailand, involving 2,500 injecting drug users, will determine if it can prevent blood-borne transmission.

The charity ActionAID welcomed the news but advised caution, saying it was far too early to celebrate.

Drug maker Roche Holding AG of Switzerland and U.S. biotech firm Trimeris Inc. released data showing their revolutionary AIDS drug, T-20, slashed the amount of virus in the blood of many patients running out of treatment options.

Experts said the drug should be on the market next year.

T-20 is the most advanced experimental drug in a new class of AIDS medicines, called entry inhibitors, which attack the virus by preventing it from getting into the blood cells it kills.

Activists from the group Act-Up Paris were not impressed. They invaded Roche's exhibition stand blowing whistles and chanting "Greed kills, access for all!" in protest at the firm's failure to cut drug prices further. (AP, Reuters)