It wouldn't be fall in downtown Washington, D.C. without the sudden swell of black suits emerging from shiny black limousines, road blockades and heightened security that herald the arrival of finance ministers and their entourages from 185 member countries off the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund (IMF). It's the usual business of "Annual Meetings" to discuss a range of issues related to poverty reduction, international economic development and finance, but what's unusual is the discussion that took place on Friday about financing the R & D of AIDS vaccines:
At the Annual Meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank today, Finance Ministers from India, the United Kingdom and South Africa, gathered in an unprecedented satellite meeting to express their support for an intensified search for new vaccines to prevent AIDS and other major infectious diseases. The ministers agreed that more needs to be done to expand financing for vaccine research & development (R&D). They proposed forming a working group of government representatives and technical experts to explore the optimal mix of financing mechanisms. The working group is to report back to the ministers as early as possible.
Never before has a gathering of finance ministers focused on the subject of R&D for new vaccines. The meeting, called on the initiative of Indian Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, is a significant milestone. The involvement of finance ministers in the AIDS crisis in the late 1990s was partly responsible for the rapid increase in funding in the early years of this decade, which led to the expansion of new antiretroviral therapies and their availability at affordable prices in low-income nations.
It's unusual for this topic to get attention at such a forum, but it isn't a surprise that the Indian Finance Minister P. Chidambram initiated this gathering. As my colleague Ruth Levine pointed out in a blog post about a whole new world of vaccines, it is not only big, western pharma that is turning its attention toward the growing demand for vaccines, but also emerging pharmaceutical companies in--you guessed correctly!--countries like India. Profit motives aside, the Indian Finance Minister made a reasonable case for increasing investments in the R & D of AIDS vaccines:
Although US$800 million is spent annually on research, AIDS vaccine funding still remains inadequate. The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise estimate that about US$1.2 billion is needed per year. "This gap is not going to be filled," said Mr. Chidambaram, "without innovative financing mechanisms, without drastic interventions from our governments and without either committing more public money to vaccine R&D or creating incentives for greater private investments." Among the proposals Mr. Chidambaram raised were greater funding for public-private product development partnerships, such as IAVI, and extending tax credits and fiscal incentives for those investing in AIDS vaccines.
The meeting's outcome: the assembled ministers offered support for the establishment of a working group that will more closely examine the creation of better incentives for vaccine research. With CGD's impressive effort to launch the idea of the Advance Market Commitment many of us will be watching this working group with great interest. For now though, loud claps are in order for the UK for its continued investments in vaccine research (the U.S was notably absent!). Even louder applause for the finance ministers of India and South Africa who have looked carefully at their development needs and have even billed themselves for part of the cost of developing an AIDS vaccine. With the realization that the cost of treatment will continue to grow exponentially, or that sexual behavior is hard to change, finance ministers of two of the most heavily affected countries (in terms of absolute numbers of HIV positive individuals) are stepping in with the strong message from Mr. Chidambram that "health issues such as HIV/AIDS are global problems, and true global collaboration will be needed to get us to the goal of an effective AIDS vaccine."