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HIV and AIDS: Vaccine

Volume 757: debated on Monday 1 December 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the progress in developing a vaccine in order effectively to address global HIV/AIDS.

My Lords, today is, of course, World AIDS Day, and we have committed nearly £1 billion to tackling HIV through our programmes. There has been some progress on HIV vaccine research recently but no major breakthrough, although there are a number of promising research avenues. Expert opinion varies and it is not possible to say when a viable vaccine will be developed.

I thank the Minister for that response. UNAIDS highlighted that only 24% of children living with HIV currently have access to HIV treatment. Given the clear need for more investment, will the Minister support the recommendation in the report launched today by the all-party group, Access Denied, to carry out an inquiry into alternative models of research and development investment, which separate the costs of R&D from the demands of profitability?

I will be speaking at the launch of that report later this afternoon, and no doubt we will have further discussions about it. One of the striking things about this is that in terms of research and development funding for new product development in 2012—the most recent figures available—33.6% went to HIV/AIDS, 17.1% towards malaria and 15% towards TB, so it is not a neglected area. But research into the vaccine is proving exceptionally difficult and the trials have proved disappointing. It is therefore necessary to move back to basic research and drive it forward that way. Meanwhile, a lot of effort is going into research and development on treatments. As the noble Lord will know, over the past decade there have been great advances in treatment. One of the key things, as my noble friend Lord Howe just indicated, is making sure that people know their status and are treated.

My Lords, I declare an interest as co-chair of the All-Party Group for Child Health and Vaccine Preventable Diseases. We understand that an effective vaccine against HIV/AIDS is still a long way off, but could my noble friend give us a progress report on two relevant product development partnerships that are funded by DfID? They are the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, and the TB Alliance’s development of new drugs for TB patients who are also infected by HIV.

My noble friend rightly highlights the link between HIV and TB. The IAVI has developed new approaches to HIV vaccine research by focusing on the needs of developing countries and early-stage research. The TB Alliance has four combinations of drugs in late-stage development, and will soon launch a trial of a combination of drugs that are suitable for those who are co-infected with both diseases.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept that the major problem in identifying and preparing a vaccine against HIV is that the very term “HIV” stands for “human immunodeficiency virus”, and the consequence is that the virus itself disables the immune system to a very considerable degree? Since the discovery of a vaccine depends on stimulating the immune system to produce a vaccine, this is an exceptionally difficult and challenging scientific problem.

My Lords, it is the turn of the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, but perhaps all noble Lords would be brief so that we can hear as many questions as possible. We will hear from the noble Baroness and then from the noble Lord, Lord Brooke. We should have time for both.

My Lords, scientific innovation and generous funding have, as we know, eradicated smallpox and are now close to eradicating polio. We live in a time when a person who tests positive for HIV is no longer facing a death sentence, so we have clearly seen real progress. Yet 35 million people still live with AIDS, and without a vaccine I do not think that we will ever see the end of this epidemic. The interesting point is that donor Governments gave less financial support in 2013 than they had previously. Will the Minister join me in condemning these cuts in R&D, which is of course fundamental and essential? Will the Minister take action against EU member states and, indeed, the US Government, which reduced their funding in 2013?

The noble Lord, Lord Walton, indicated the real challenges here. This needs basic research, and the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust are best able to assess what may have better prospects. They have stepped up their contributions.

My Lords, I declare an interest as I was the Civil Science Minister at the time when HIV came in. The late Lord Joseph and I had been advised by both the advisory board for the Research Councils and the MRC that there was no way in which research science could keep absolutely on the frontiers of all the subjects which were available to it. When HIV came in, they had to tell us that, unfortunately, research in virology had fallen back. Could my noble friend give us some indication of how far that setback has been repaired in the past 30 years, particularly given the salience of this issue in west Africa at present?

I just mentioned the level of research and development money going into product development for HIV. I expect the noble Lord will know that Imperial College is leading in this area. I visited the human immunology laboratory at Imperial, which is taking forward vaccine research in a number of different areas. The noble Lord will also know that the number of years it has taken to develop viable vaccines in various areas—10 years for measles, 16 years for hepatitis, 25 years for cervical cancer and 47 years for polio—bears out the particular challenge referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Walton.