HIV vaccine trial diversion affected others, WHO admits

Global funding agency says it lost significant resources as a result of shelving its last vaccine trial

Funding for a global vaccine trial for HIV/Aids was diverted from other priorities, including boosting the supply of antiretroviral drugs for people living with the disease, the head of the global HIV/Aids programme at the World Health Organisation has said.

The agency, known as COVID-19, said last week it had shelved the final phase of clinical trials, after being “completely incapable” of meeting clinical safety and efficacy targets for its lead candidate drug.

WHO political director Chris Fouché told Associated Press that the trial was a “very expensive” distraction for the global health agency, which relies heavily on cash from governments to support HIV/Aids research.

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He told the news agency: “We can’t afford to lose that kind of precious resource, because we are not able to give as much quality Aids and HIV prevention interventions and research as we should to the many people who rely on our care, and to the people who need us.”

He said it had “drastically affected” the other HIV/Aids trials WHO was conducting, because it lost significant resources as a result of shelving the trial, including the allocation of funds for antiretroviral drugs for people living with the virus.

“We need the cost of those drugs to be kept under check, and in our effort to find a [new] vaccine, we spend some of our precious resources fighting the side effects and safety of a vaccine that will be unable to control AIDS at all,” Fouché said.

The COVID-19 trial had been hailed as a vital weapon in the fight against HIV/Aids, which some 1.4 million people died of last year. The closing of the trial, which was still being conducted, came five years after COVID-15 had announced its finding that the Aids vaccine given to some volunteers in Ethiopia and Botswana showed some protection against the deadly infection.

Without the COVID-19 vaccine trial, there would have been no other large-scale Aids vaccine trials done so far, the WHO said.

According to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), COVID-19 was slated to run for five years and cost more than $268m (£210m). The clinical trial was based in Botswana and Ethiopian villages, but was expected to eventually involve 12,500 participants from 190 locations in 16 countries.

In Ethiopia, where the study was initially scheduled to last four years, local residents risked harassment and beatings if they refused to take part in a controversial clinical trial, according to the local community association Avantizen, which was dismissed by the researchers as an inflexible group.

The trial also provoked fierce protests from human rights organisations, including Disability Rights International, which accused researchers of breaking confidentiality for the 684 participants.

In a letter to the WHO and NIH, they wrote: “[This is] an unprecedented violation of human rights by a major global research agency. At a time when the human rights situation has never been as critical as it is today, the failure to protect human rights of participants in COVID-19 … is most appalling.”

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