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Experts: AIDS vaccine years away

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Thailand has seen a huge decline in new cases of HIV/AIDS.
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BANGKOK, Thailand (CNN) -- Scientists have played down hopes that an AIDS vaccine could be developed within the next few years.

Researchers even said they could be forced to go back to the drawing board if the current batch of drugs, all focused on one approach, fails.

Seth Berkley, President and Chief Executive of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, said the number of potential vaccines in clinical trials had doubled since the millennium but that more research was needed.

"The world is inching towards a vaccine, when we should be making strides," Reuters reported him as saying on Monday at the 15th International Conference on AIDS in Bangkok, Thailand.

"Only a vaccine can end the epidemic."

His comments echoed those made the day before by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who said global efforts to reduce the scale and the impact of the disease by next year are not following projections made three years ago.

Annan also told delegates at the conference that women were increasingly bearing the major brunt of the disease.

In 2001, at the General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS, governments of the world made a number of pledges -- in a document dubbed the "declaration of commitment" -- aimed at defeating the pandemic.

Despite progress "on many fronts," Annan said in prepared remarks, "we are not doing nearly well enough."

World Health Organization figures released last week showed that the virus infected a record 5 million people last year and caused 3 million deaths, a toll greater than any single year since 1981, when AIDS was first recognized.

Hours before the opening ceremony for the conference in the Thai capital, about 1,000 protesters marched outside the convention center.

Most of the protesters were Thais who called for greater availability of generic drugs as well as the expansion of prevention programs that include condom distribution and access to needles for IV drug users.

Organized by a coalition of Thai HIV patient-rights organizations and the U.S.-based Health Global Access Project, the event also included people from other countries, including Germany, France, the United States and Brazil.

Clad in pink shirts bearing the slogan "Access Denied to All," many carried signs underscoring the importance of condoms in prevention programs and criticizing the Bush administration's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

The plan, announced last year, called for $15 billion over five years to combat the spread of HIV in 14 nations in Africa and the Caribbean. This year, the U.S. Congress provided $2.4 billion for the plan.

Demonstrators criticized U.S. President George W. Bush's apparent preference for programs that emphasize abstinence.

Last month, in a speech in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Bush highlighted a Uganda program called the "A-B-C approach which stands for abstinence, faithfulness in marriage and when appropriate, use condoms."

"We're sick of bilateral donors such as the U.S. who give money with strings attached," said protest organizer Asia Russell of Health GAP.

Six months ago, the World Health Organization launched a plan to get half of the 6 million people in developing countries who need treatment on HIV drugs by 2005.

The cost of anti-retroviral drugs in developing countries has fallen by more than 90 percent in recent years as drug companies bow to pressure to lower costs. Despite this only 440,000 of AIDS sufferers there now receive such drugs, the WHO said.

Its figures show that an estimated 38 million people are infected with HIV around the world, with the majority of them in developing countries.

The biggest player in the anti-retroviral drugs market is GlaxoSmithKline, which holds a market share of more than 40-percent in the $6 billion-a-year industry.

The UK-based pharmaceutical company was singled out by protesters in Bangkok, who accuse GlaxoSmithKline of failing to get its drugs to South Africans with HIV.

Demonstrators say despite the company granting a "voluntary licence" to a South African firm, to make generic drugs three years ago -- not one pill has been produced.

GlaxoSmithKline says the firm is still waiting on South African regulators' approval.

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