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South Africa Advances AIDS Treatment

FILE: Civil rights activists march in Durban, South Africa, Monday, July 18, 2016, at the start of the 21st World Aids Conference.
FILE: Civil rights activists march in Durban, South Africa, Monday, July 18, 2016, at the start of the 21st World Aids Conference.

Today’s World AIDS Day, and South Africa, the country with the largest HIV epidemic globally is racing to roll out a revolutionary new drug called CAB-L.A.

Taken every two months, CAB-L.A. is lifesaving because it virtually eliminates the possibility of contracting HIV through sex.

South Africa is trying to be second in the world, after the United States, to provide the vaccine, described by medical scientists as the greatest pharmaceutical weapon so far against the spread of HIV.

There are almost 8-million people living with the virus in South Africa.

It runs the biggest HIV treatment program in the world, providing life-enhancing antiretroviral, ARV, pills to almost five-and-a-half million infected people every month.

But it’s battling to prevent HIV. The government says more than 200-thousand people get newly infected annually.

That’s why scientists say it’s so important for South Africa, and indeed the continent, to have CAB-L.A., which stands for long-acting cabotegravir.

Director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre, Professor Linda-Gail Bekker, says it works like an injectable contraceptive.

“It slowly diffuses into the bloodstream and then it works its magic," she said, adding "It stops HIV replicating. By giving that pre-exposure prophylaxis, you’ve got prevention onboard; again, a little bit like contraception: You get your contraception onboard to stop you getting pregnant, same here, you have your antiretroviral onboard to stop you getting HIV.”

Bekker’s leading a trial in which more than three-thousand women across sub-Saharan Africa are getting CAB-L.A.

In Cape Town, 23-year-old Amanda Roberts is one of them. Aids took her mother’s life in 2016.

“My mom’s twin also has HIV." she said, "So, I had to join the study, ‘cos I didn’t want to go the same route they had to go.”

Before Roberts began taking CAB-L.A., she used a daily HIV prevention pill consisting of two ARVs. But, like millions of others, she found it very inconvenient to swallow it at the same time each and every day.

“Some days I’m not at home; I’m having fun, so I don’t have my tablets with me. That’s when the problem started because I used to skip, maybe a day, without taking them," she told VOA.

That’s dangerous, as missing doses of ARVs means they’re less effective.

Studies in the U.S. have found the CAB-L.A. jab works 90-percent better for young women than the daily pill, probably because the once-every-two-months injection is much easier to take.

Research shows CAB-L.A. can reduce HIV infections and Aids deaths by three times more than daily ARVs.

In South Africa, it could prevent more than 50-thousand new infections annually.

But, there’s a catch: Price. In the U.S, where CAB-L.A.’s been available for a year, one jab costs three-thousand-700 dollars.

Drug manufacturer ViiV has pledged to offer it to Africa at what it calls a “not-for-profit price.”

The firm’s head of research and development, Dr. Kimberly Smith, says this will depend on how many orders donors and governments can commit to.

International health journal The Lancet recently reported the price ViiV’s considering for the injection in Africa would cost around 260-dollars per patient per year, far above what the continent can afford.

Smith says it’s much too early to speculate about price, and her company will do its best to get CAB-L.A. to Africa.

“The goal," he said, "is to get the price as low as possible; some of that depends on volume guarantees and a number of aspects. But I think it’s important to remember that CAB is a sterile, injectable product; it’s a very complex manufacturing process. The places where it’s been compared to the manufacturing costs of a simple white pill are just not realistic.”