AIDS Research Declining: Perspective of a Former AIDSVAX Investor

An almost comical article was released by the AFP today trumpeting the first human clinical trials of an African-developed AIDS vaccine. While on the surface this certainly sounds great and hopeful, the fact is the vaccine trial is not only likely of very little statistical significance (the pool of patients is only 48 people) the real research money — and therefore the real brains — for AIDS prevention research is in other areas.

But why would AIDS research money be in any area other than vaccines these days? Just a few years ago several now-forgotten subsidiaries of the most respected pharmaceutical companies were hard at work trying to develop a vaccine for AIDS. This was natural as every human in the world was a potential (and almost certain) customer, so even a very cheap vaccine would see at least 6 billion units sold as quickly as they could be produced. This is not even counting the market position one would have for the duration of the patent’s life, as the vaccine would almost certainly be a worldwide child vaccination requirement.

The fact that the vaccines never made it to market (and most never even to trials) and the striking reality that nearly all of these companies or subsidiaries no longer sponsor AIDS vaccine research or in some cases even exist is a testament both to the difficulty of this sort of research and the negative effects of intellectual property threats from a huge number of sources.

The basic problem with medical research is that it simply is not free. A common misconception in the pharmaceutically un-invested public is that pharmaceuticals are produced by companies which are dark, evil and seek to control life, death and the money involved with those two. People further assume that somehow the sort of extremely difficult and exhaustive research required to develop truly innovative and life-saving drugs and techniques is not worth the enormous effort (represented by money) required for such research and that companies have no right to recoup the billions they spend annually on such research by charging market prices for drugs.

The drug research industry has seen a huge contraction in recent years, particularly in areas such as AIDS prevention research and drugs simply because they are afraid of investing the time and money required to produce a stable product only to have their intellectual rights trampled and product stolen.

But that’s ridiculous!” was the first response I got to this. It is not. Consider that every populist government on the planet and nearly every left-leaning political party or private organization has plainly stated that any technical knowledge which has the potential to reduce or eradicate AIDS will and must be appropriated in the public interest. No compensation is mentioned here and none is intended. The image of drug companies being only after money (as if that were somehow a crime and against the public interest) and therefore evil greatly assists this assertion and has, indeed, protected such policies and the men who promote them from any backlash. They have, in fact, usurped the moral high-ground and made their intended theft appear moral — and amazingly made working hard and spending money to eradicate AIDS with the expectation of being compensated for this effort appear evil. Amazing, isn’t it?

French and Canadian health consortia have both stated that they will strike the intellectual property rights of whatever company first successfully develops an AIDS vaccine within their jurisdictions. Under their proposed programs government-subsidized generic drug makers are the ones who will provide the “public service” of producing at-cost generic AIDS vaccinations for everyone. This sentiment sounds great to anyone not actually involved in trying to find an AIDS vaccine… or to anyone who lacks an understanding of how all the medical miracles we take for granted today have come into being (not to mention the mountain of other miracle gadgets that make modern life what it is… from elevators to airplanes).

I personally was heavily invested in more than one company trying to develop an AIDS vaccine back in the days when that was a popular and forward thinking thing to do. I invested money not simply because I want to see AIDS done away with (I enjoy philandering enough to have a personal interest in seeing this disease wiped out, after all) but most importantly because I want to see a decent return on my investment capital.

In the end, I have the intellectual and operational capacity as an individual to avoid contracting AIDS under nearly all circumstances, so I am much less worried about contracting AIDS personally than I am getting a decent return on my money. I am not unique in this regard. Saving the world simply doesn’t make you any money. I tried it for years, risking my own life in the process, and you just walk away with divorces under your belt, kids who don’t know you and a home country that “respects” you from afar but doesn’t understand or care to know you as a person anymore. However, investing money in things that are inherently useful (and therefore worth money) is something that is easy to believe in, no matter how cynical the world has made you, and the pinnacle of functionality for humans is something that has the potential to save their very lives from something like AIDS.

But the problem with such a thing is that everybody who doesn’t have anything to do with the effort wants it, and not just wants it bad enough to pay for it (which is your whole angle as an investor) but wants it bad enough to steal it. Enough of them want to steal it that they will vote together to make the process of stealing it legal. So in the end you can invest billions in an AIDS vaccine and the only thing that will ever come of it is for people to not thank you and repay you, but to steal the product of your long labor in a flurry of moral self-certainty and self-righteously call you an “evil pharmaceutical profiteer”. Some way to thank the group who worked so long an hard to save the world from AIDS.

Where is the fun in that? Lose my investment while the bleeding hearts pat themselves on the back for what amounts to intellectual property theft leaving all those who worked hard on the project to wonder what happened and why they are suddenly unable to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labor instead of looking for jobs or investment opportunities in another sector. After all, once research is proven to be unprofitable, does anyone imagine smart money would continue to fund smart researchers only to repeat the painful experience of being legally robbed? Research is a business and it takes huge sums of money to pay huge teams of talented researchers who can demand appropriately huge salaries for committing years of their lives to this extremely difficult and deep research. Researchers are easy to come by, but motivated, insightful, good researchers of the caliber a private concern are willing to pay top money for are frighteningly rare.

So… to bring a rambling article to its focus: What happened to all those very promising trial vaccines and the companies that were producing them? They all shut down. Funding was withdrawn, people were let go, the information collected across thousands of man-years of research was recorded, sealed and secured probably forever, never to see the light of day. The research is simply too controversial. It appears that nobody is ever going to let an investor or company make a dime off of an AIDS vaccine, at least not while it is still a political topic instead of an actual disease that actually infects Real People(TM) in the minds of billions of people around the world. That means all the money will move into other, less controversial areas of research or different sectors of industry entirely and AIDS vaccines will continue to be a largely neglected area of research.

But what about government grants? Those exist, sure, but they provide a mere fraction of what is necessary for research at this level with any speed. There is not a war against AIDS and AIDS is not threatening the national security of a country such as the US which actually has the means to do something about it. So it will fall to the side in favor of more pressing issues such as people who kill citizens by the thousands with airplanes or other political hot button topics such as making sure that Planet English only produces literature using feminine or gender-neutral pronouns (even when it doesn’t make sense) or global warming (which are far less controversial on the surface, despite being based on far shakier science than AIDS research).

As discussed above researchers are easy to come by — the dirtbag, non-productive type, I mean. The sort of researcher who is content to subsist on government grants which require no real way of quantifying, qualifying or substantiating their research for funding justification (which is what the government grant game is all about) are not the same sort of top-notch engineers and researchers hired by companies who have the private investment capital to pay bigger salaries for bigger brains. Research, just like making drugs, is a business after all, and nobody goes to MIT or interns at the Mayo Clinic to end their life poor, merely happy with the “difference” they made on a crap government salary.

The South African trial in most likely will fail, but the failure being based on an extremely limited group (most trials based on prevention, not treatment, utilize a pool of thousands, not tens, for very good reasons) will be easy enough to publicly misinterpret long enough to attract some unwise investors into impulsively tossing their money away at this company in time for the company to close its doors and stop operating at a realized profit — and yes, halting operations after absorbing free bags of stupid money (as opposed to smart money mentioned above) is a business model, though it’s a swindle, not a productive interprise.

This certainly appears to be a stunt that the media is trumpeting out of sheer hope, not based on concrete and promising data. I hope that AIDS gets eradicated; further, I hope that I can profit from that eradication. I’m happy either way, but something nobody is going to stand by (at least not me) for is to see AIDS get eradicated and the people responsible for the work behind it to get nothing but a smirk, a smile, or robbed in return.

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