Not To Be Missed: New report on funding for prevention research

October 19, 2016

The span of a decade—that interval that’s neither too long nor too short to bring innovation—is one that’s often used in the HIV prevention research space, usually to convey optimism. Back in 1997, then President Bill Clinton called for a national commitment to develop an AIDS vaccine within ten years. Just this week, Bill Gates said, “With the right leadership and investments over the next decade, we can discover and deliver a vaccine for HIV.”

The success of these forward-looking claims has always depended on sustained funding. Note, in both cases, the emphasis on commitment and leadership. No one is promising a vaccine with anything less. A look back at the last ten years provides a warning on this front. Released today, the Resource Tracking for HIV prevention R&D Working Group’s latest annual report on global investment into biomedical HIV prevention reports that overall funding for HIV prevention research and development (R&D) has remained essentially flat for over a decade.

Close followers of the annual “RT” report take note—a preliminary version was released at AIDS 2016 in Durban in July. The final version contains slightly updated data and the same overall messages: with a slight fall from US$1.25 billion in 2014 to US$1.20 billion in 2015, overall funding for HIV prevention research and development (R&D) has been more or less level for the past ten years.

And what a decade it’s been! Consider the developments in PrEP, the pipeline of injectable ARVs for prevention and treatment, the continued advance of the ARV-containing vaginal dapivirine ring, and the insights and advances that have come from sustained scientific inquiry related to the search for an HIV vaccine. These are exciting times. And the fact that all of this happened in the context of flat funding for research doesn’t mean that flat funding will get us where we need to go next. As Tom Hope, PhD (Northwestern University) stressed at an opening plenary of the HIV R4P conference where the report was launched, the fact that funding is declining concurrent with new discoveries is a major challenge for the field.

The report notes that preventive vaccine research funding constituted the bulk of all investments, followed by investments in microbicides, TasP, PMTCT, PrEP, VMMC and female condoms. With the exception of vaccines and female condoms, every other HIV prevention option tracked by the working group experienced a decline. These trends are somewhat reflective of the cyclical nature of large-scale clinical trials—when trials end, funding drops off. Likewise, as some interventions enter full scale rollout, like VMMC and TasP, research in this arena can be expected to slow down. Nevertheless, the overall trends bear close watching and strong advocacy to ensure that research continues.

The right products need to be tested in the populations who need them most. The report is also a powerful reminder that this isn’t necessarily how research works. It provides information on the demographic breakdown of almost 900,000 participants in ongoing HIV prevention trials in 2015, with the majority of these volunteers residing in sub-Saharan Africa, most notably Uganda, Kenya, and South Africa. Only one in eight trial participants in 2015 belonged to a population most affected by HIV, including MSM and transgender women, injection drug users, and cisgender women.

These sobering facts come in the context of a vigorous period in research and development. It’s a time of growing recognition from the global community that research has to be part of the long-term fight to end the HIV epidemic. Taking stock of all that’s been accomplished with ten years of flat funding, now is the time to support continued progress with additional, well-targeted resources.

The Resource Tracking Working Group hopes that this tool provides strong facts for advocacy and supports efforts to assess public policy and its role in accelerating scientific progress. We thank all of the individuals who contributed data to the report and who gave time and effort as trial participants.

Check out the report, share it with your fellow advocates, and be sure to let us know if your organization is either a funder or recipient of HIV prevention grants or if you have further questions or information about resource tracking at all!