The Russian government is putting together its first AIDS research program: a $15 million effort to develop a vaccine against HIV. The new program, recently approved by the lower house of parliament (the Duma), is a sign that Russia is belatedly coming to grips with the spread of AIDS in the country.
Russia's public health has eroded since the end of the Soviet Union, with diphtheria and other preventable infectious diseases becoming rampant outside Moscow and life expectancy, especially for men, plummeting. Yet Russian officials have been reluctant to acknowledge the spread of AIDS. Government estimates put the number of HIV-infected Russians at several thousand, including about 1000 cases of full-blown AIDS. However, says AIDS researcher Dimiter Dimitrov of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, "the general opinion is that the numbers are much higher."
Indeed, in discussing funding of the vaccine program, members of the Duma talk about AIDS as a foreign problem. Duma legislator Mikhail Glubokovsky, a marine biologist, told ScienceNOW that the disease is only just reaching Russia from neighboring countries. "We have no real boundaries between Russia and Ukraine and Belarus," he says.
To lead the program, Russia has chosen two respected Moscow-based immunologists: Ram Petrov of the Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry and Rakhim Haitov, director of the Institute of Immunology. They have not yet laid out their research plans. But at least one Russian immunologist says the duo will have firm control of the non-peer-reviewed funds: "Their own research groups will be well supported," he predicts.