February 14, 2002
The Rockefeller Foundation and several activist groups are calling on the US government and private philanthropies to provide US$545 million over the next five years to develop microbicides-sometimes called "invisible condoms"-to prevent sexual transmission of HIV and other infections.
Advocates are looking to the US government to spend approximately $100 million annually on microbicide research. This would double the $49 million spent by the National Institutes of Health and other agencies last year. The increased funding, advocates say, would greatly improve the chances of a safe and effective microbicide being ready for market by 2007.
Microbicides are gels or creams applied topically, for example, vaginally or rectally. Currently, there are more than 60 microbicide products undergoing research, with 11 in various stages of human testing. Three candidates are scheduled to begin final stage human trials in 2002.
"A microbicide that only prevented infection 60 percent of the time would prevent 2.5 million HIV infections over three years, if only 20 percent of those around the world use it," according to a new report from the Rockefeller Foundation's Microbicide Initiative. Microbicides are expected to be key tools for women and girls in poorer nations, who are often unable to demand that male sex partners use condoms.
Progress in microbicide research and development has been stalled by a lack of funding and interest. The need to keep prices low in developing countries has discouraged private sector investment. To date, most microbicide research has been funded through US$230 million in contributions from nonprofit organizations, universities and small drug companies.
"It doesn't automatically happen. There's not much political support for microbicides," says Dr. Geeta Rao Gupta, President of the International Center for Research on Women.
In this way, microbicides parallel another technology with potential to stem the tide of the AIDS epidemic: preventive vaccines. While scientists believe a vaccine to prevent HIV infection or AIDS is possible, their efforts have been slowed for want of money and political commitment. The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) is a global nonprofit organization that accelerates AIDS vaccine science by investing in the development and testing of promising vaccine approaches and also works to put in place policies to guarantee widespread access to future vaccines.