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Funding drop may stall HIV research in Africa

Donor dependency makes research field sensitive to decline

A decline in donor funding could stall HIV research in Africa and reduce the number of big projects led by expatriates, harming training and collaboration opportunities for their African counterparts.

Funding for HIV research—particularly for microbicides and vaccines—has dropped significantly in recent years, according to a report published at last month’s global HIV summit in Washington DC, US.

The July report, ‘Investing to End the AIDS Epidemic: A New Era for HIV Prevention Research and Development’, says that funding for HIV microbicides and vaccines dropped from a peak of US$1.2 billion in 2006 to just over US$1bn in 2011.

The vast majority of this funding comes from organisations in Europe or the US. But the impact on African research, which depends on overseas grants and collaborations, could be severe.

“Many large trials are being led by international researchers and we may see less of them engage in Africa,” says Alex Ezeh, who directs the Kenya-based African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC).

Mbarwa Kivuyo, public relations officer at Tanzania’s Ifakara Health Institute, which focuses on medical research, agrees that the drop is bad for Africa. “In the future very few research activities will be taking place due to funding challenges,” he says.

Countries with scant national research funding are particularly at risk. For instance, about 83 per cent of Kenya’s HIV programme encompassing treatment and research comes from US donors.

But even South Africa, with its significant medical research budget, could suffer. Donors such as the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) spend 15 times more annually on HIV research in South Africa than the country’s own Medical Research Council.

“The decline will impact on maintenance of laboratories and efforts to develop a vaccine,” says Salim Abdool Karim, president of the council.

In the US, researchers are feeling the pinch.

“It is becoming more and more difficult to find grants to do work overseas,” explains Susan Graham, a US-based HIV vaccine researcher who is also part of the Kenya Medical Research Institute-Wellcome Trust research programme.

But the negative impact of the cuts on Africa could be cushioned if national governments put more funding into HIV research, says Roger Hunt, a chemistry professor at the University of Cape Town.

“We need to have an intelligent policy where scientists and state officials sit down and develop a ten-year plan,” he says.

See links for more in this issue on HIV funding in Africa