DAVOS, SWITZERLAND--In a huge boost for efforts to develop an AIDS vaccine, Bill Gates announced at the World Economic Forum here on 27 January that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will give $100 million to the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI). The 5-year grant helps put the New York City-based nonprofit on track to launch clinical trials of three of its most promising AIDS vaccines by 2007.
With $21 billion in assets, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gives away hundreds of millions of dollars a year to health and educational organizations. Paving the way for the foundation's big-time plunge into AIDS vaccines was a dinner party at the Gates mansion in 1998 attended by IAVI chief Seth Berkley. Gates was seeking advice on how his foundation might significantly improve public health through contributions of large sums of money. At the dinner, Gates asked Berkley, "Where is money a limiting factor in stopping AIDS?"
Berkley had long argued that a vaccine is the best hope for stopping AIDS. And after reading up on AIDS vaccines, Gates decided to support IAVI with a $1.5 million gift in 1998, and another $25 million a year later. The new money from the Gates Foundation will come in $20 million chunks for each of the next 5 years. It's a challenge grant, meaning that the foundation expects other organizations to help IAVI raise the $550 million needed to launch the three trials; counting the Gates money, IAVI has $230 million. That puts the nonprofit in the AIDS vaccine big leagues.
It's unclear how easy it will be to raise the rest. While Glaxo Wellcome has contributed to IAVI, other drug companies are taking a wait-and-see attitude. Pfizer CEO Hank McKinnell says that if IAVI comes through with an effective vaccine, Pfizer--which is not now working on an AIDS vaccine--would consider producing and selling the vaccine.