Feature story

High level panel highlights need for greater investments in technology and innovation to advance results for HIV prevention for treatment

09 June 2011

Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, President of the Republic of Fiji, chairs the panel discussion on Innovation and new technologies, 9 June 2011. Credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

Progress in reducing the number of new HIV infections and increasing access to antiretroviral treatment over the past three decades did not happen haphazardly but were in large part due to a concerted international effort that bridged technology and innovation for results in HIV prevention and treatment.

This emerged from an official panel entitled Innovation and new technologies, one of five panels in which high level representatives from member states and civil society are holding as part of the 2011 United Nations General Assembly High Level Meeting on AIDS.

Chaired by HE President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau of Fiji, the panel brought together the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Margaret Chan; the Minister of Health of Mexico, Dr Jose Angel Cordova Villalobos; and Dr Christoforos Mallouris, Director of Programmes, Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+).

The panellists shared their insights on how technology and innovation have played instrumental roles in helping realize the results achieved in the AIDS response to date. One example cited was the increase in the past decade of the number of people living with HIV on antiretroviral treatment: in 2010 that figure stood at 6.6 million up from 240 000 in 2001. Cited as central to this unprecedented development was a combination of innovative technology that led to highly effective antiretroviral medicines and improved access to that technology through the availability of low-cost, quality-assured drugs.

Doing more of the same is not enough. We need innovation urgently.

World Health Organization Director-General Dr Margaret Chan

“Collaboration with developing countries will be crucial," said President Nailatikau who highlighted the need to find innovative solutions at the heart of the disease. “With this, we have a chance to make a huge impact against one of the greatest health and development challenges of our generation.”

Moderated by British journalist Andrew Jack from the Financial Times, the discussion focused substantially on the several challenges facing the AIDS response from the technology and innovation perspective, mainly the necessity to urgently expand access to newer and improved HIV technologies, such as better diagnostics for CD4 and viral load counts, and increased investments in biomedical prevention technologies such as microbicides.

The panellists agreed that access to proven HIV prevention technologies—from male and female condoms to male circumcision—must continue to be scaled up and governments should ensure policies are in place within their national responses that foster innovation and advancement, from both the public and private sector. Innovative partnerships that create financial or other incentives to spur research and development were viewed as key elements.

“Let’s not let the pace of the epidemic get beyond us. We have the capacity for innovation to recreate ourselves to achieve not only zero new infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths; but also for zero homophobia and transphobia, zero gender-discrimination and human rights for all,” said President Felipe Calderón of Mexico,

Echoing a “positive health, dignity and prevention” approach, Dr Mallouris of GNP+ urged for greater involvement of people living with HIV in prevention. “People living with HIV also need prevention and new prevention technologies. We need to ensure that people living with HIV are involved—we are not just vessels of transmission, we want prevention too,” said Dr Mallouris. 

The panel also drew attention to the recent results of the HPTN 052 study announced by the United States National Institutes of Health which demonstrated that if an HIV-positive person adheres to an effective antiretroviral therapy regimen, the risk of transmitting the virus to their uninfected sexual partner can be reduced by 96%. Attention was also given to the ongoing search for an HIV vaccine that, although estimated to be decades away, is considered by many in the AIDS community as an essential component of the future AIDS response.

“Doing more of the same is not enough,” said World Health Organization Director-General Dr Chan. “We need innovation urgently and we are still running behind this devastating epidemic. We know now…beyond doubt that early treatment has a powerful effect on transmission in sero-discordant couples—we must maximize the preventive effects of treatment by early diagnosis.”

However in both the short- and medium-term, the panel stressed the importance of rapidly expanding access to antiretroviral treatment as one of the most pressing issues. With about nine million people in low- and middle-income countries who are eligible for treatment in need, the panel encouraged countries to give priority to transferring research and technology as well as to provide sufficient funding for the research and development of safer, more effective antiretroviral medicines that are also easier to use.

UN General Assembly High Level Meeting on AIDS

Thirty years into the AIDS epidemic, and 10 years since the landmark UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS, the world has come together to review progress and chart the future course of the global AIDS response at the 2011 UN General Assembly High Level Meeting on AIDS from 8–10 June 2011 in New York. Member States are expected to adopt a new Declaration that will reaffirm current commitments and commit to actions to guide and sustain the global AIDS response.