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Less attention on HIV

Interview: Zulfikar Abbany, LindauJuly 14, 2015

AIDS research has made immense progress over the last decades, but there's still a lot to be done, Nobel laureate Françoise Barré-Sinoussi told DW. She says less attention is being paid to HIV in wealthy countries.

UNAIDS has new data showing success in the fight against HIV/AIDS
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Hrusa

To mark the publication of new data by UNAIDS, the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says the world can look forward to a "generation free of AIDS." His "ambitious but realistic" aim is that, working together, rich and poor countries will stop the HIV/AIDS epidemic by 2030. Nobel laureate Françoise Barré-Sinoussi is not so sure about that, even though on first glance, current numbers seem promising.

UNAIDS says "the goal of 15 million people on life-saving HIV treatment by 2015 has been met nine months ahead of schedule."

It has published this and other data in a book called "How AIDS changed everything - MDG 6: 15 years, 15 lessons of hope from the AIDS response" this Tuesday.

Here is a quick breakdown of some of the figures:

People living with HIV accessing antiretroviral therapy

As of March 2015, 15 million people living with HIV were accessing antiretroviral therapy, up from 13.6 million in June 2014.

People living with HIV

In 2014, there were 36.9 million people living with HIV.

Since 2000, around 38.9 million people have become infected with HIV and 25.3 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon reporting success in the fight against HIV/AIDS
UN chief Ban Ki-moon sees an "ambitious but realistic" chance the world will eradicate HIV by 2030Image: Reuters/T. Negeri

New HIV infections

New HIV infections have fallen by 35 percent since 2000.

AIDS-related deaths

AIDS-related deaths have fallen by 42 percent since the peak in 2004.

For more info, read the full UNAIDS Fact Sheet.

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi on the state of HIV research

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi is one of three Nobel Laureates awarded the prize in 2008 for discovering HIV. At the 2015 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, DW asked Barré-Sinoussi how she feels about current HIV research, and what needs to change.

DW: Is there any fear on your part that all the talk of vaccines, and the perception that HIV is no longer considered fatal, is distracting people from HIV research?

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi: Of course, there is less and less attention for HIV, at least in the rich countries. In the public, the general idea is that if the patients are treated, they are doing well and they have a similar life expectancy as non-infected people.

But in reality we have to really see what's going on.

First, because of this perception we have a proportion of people that are getting infected again, and particularly among the gay population in Europe and the United States. Second, we see in the very long term, we have [depending on] the country between 25 and 60 percent of people who are on long term treatment, that are not virologically suppressed, because of a lack of adherence [to treatment].

Fraçoise Barré-Sinoussi, Nobel Laureate, co-discoverd HIV
Barré-Sinoussi: the price of some drugs is "unacceptable"Image: DW/Z.Abbany

I used to ask people, when I mentioned 25 percent of suppression on long term - where is it? And everybody said to me: Africa. But it's in Washington D.C., United States. So for me it's not a question of low income countries versus rich countries. It is a question of access to treatment, and HIV infection in the United States is affecting mostly what we call minorities, and minorities do not have full, free access to treatment and monitoring of their treatments.

In France, my country, it's 60 percent of long term virological suppression, but 60 percent is not enough, and in France, or in Australia, where it is also at 60 percent, everything is free. So it's not only a question of money when you speak with patients about long term [treatment]. It is very hard for them to continue to be treated.

You say it's not only a question of money. But a lot of pharmaceutical research is controlled by the flow of money. Wouldn't it help to remove certain areas of research, such as HIV research, from all economic constraints, to remove the profit drive among companies for research that is aimed at improving the greater, public health?

Well, that's a question for pharmaceutical companies, not me. But for sure, they will say it's impossible because they will not survive. And if they can't survive, there will be no development anymore. And if there's no development, there will be no health benefit at all.

Barré-Sinoussi shares a Nobel Prize with Harald zur Hausen and Luc Montagnier for discovering HIVImage: picture-alliance/ dpa/H. Gelderblom/Robert Koch Institut

So it really comes down to the pharmaceutical companies?

Yes, because we cannot do the development in academia. We don't have the knowledge to do that. I don't know of any academic researchers that are capable to make the development. It's not our job. It's not research anymore, it is production - production in good medical practice, and that we don't know. It's another job.

But people like Mitchell Warren of the advocacy organization AVAC say you can have the best vaccine in the world, but it's useless if nobody uses it.

I agree. I totally agree with Mitch. It's the same for therapy. And I've said it myself at the start of the AIDS conference: As a scientist, if your findings are not transformed into tools available for patients - then you become an activist! Because that is not acceptable.

I agree we have to find a solution… I mean, there should be a regulation on pharma, somehow. Take Hepatitis C - it's a good example. We can cure Hep C. But the price of the treatment is really unacceptable. There must be pressure from politicians to limit the price of the drugs. And that should be done at the international level. It's not a question of doing it in Europe or in the United States. But we still need people with the expertise to produce the drug or the vaccine. And whether they have a benefit? I think it's normal they have a benefit, because it's a lot of work and they spend money. But there [should be limits]. That's my point.

Prof. Dr. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi was a co-recipient of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the "discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus." She shared the prize with Harald zur Hausen and Luc Montagnier. Barré-Sinoussi is Emeritus Professor at the Institut Pasteur and Emeritus Director of Research at the Inserm.