BETHESDA, MARYLAND--It's time for bold steps to boost development of vaccines for the world's main killers--AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis--according to a range of experts gathered here 22 to 23 May. Technically, such vaccines are feasible, the group concluded, but funding will have to go up dramatically.
Scientists think new vaccines are the only way to get the world's major scourges under control; economists think healthier populations could also be a shot in the arm for development, especially in Africa. But with the exception of AIDS, the pharmaceutical industry hasn't taken much interest in developing vaccines for common diseases, because they don't expect to make a profit. And there has been little political support on Capitol Hill for spending on diseases that afflict few U.S. citizens.
But that seems to be changing. Recently, industry leaders have expressed a desire to help, and in January, President Clinton announced his Millennium Vaccine Initiative, in which he proposed a series of measures to stimulate vaccine research. Bills introduced in the House and the Senate would do the same. This week's meeting, held at Clinton's request and hosted by the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), was set up to suggest further ways to propel vaccine development. With political interest peaking, "now is your chance, folks," said NIAID director Anthony Fauci to the gathered researchers, public health experts, and executives from the pharmaceutical and biotech industry.
In three sessions--for TB, malaria, and AIDS--participants identified the major hurdles on the road to a vaccine and came up with a plethora of ideas to clear them. The malaria researchers want the president to initiate an "aggressive malaria vaccine program" and raise federal funding from the current $25 million to $500 million a year; in addition, the U.S. should commit to buying $500 million a year worth of vaccines once they've been developed, to guarantee the industry a market. The AIDS group pleaded for a 10-fold funding hike, while the TB researchers suggested setting up a new, flexible funding agency that rewards good scientific ideas quickly. The suggestions will be compiled into a report and sent to the White House.
Getting scientists and industry to map a common strategy "is a very important step," says Malegapuru Makgoba, president of the Medical Research Council of South Africa. And with the current political momentum, results are within reach, Makgoba says: "I'm confident, for instance, that we'll see an AIDS vaccine in the next 5 or 6 years."