The Bill Melinda Gates Foundation last week announced it is awarding $287 million in grants over five years to create an international network of scientists to speed up the development of an AIDS vaccine.

The main goal of the 16 individual grants is to shift the development process from independent efforts in separate laboratories to large-scale collaborative efforts stretching across many labs and countries.

The collaboration is critical to making HIV vaccine development more efficient, said Dr Nicholas Hellmann, acting director of the Gates Foundation’s HIV, TB and reproductive health program, to The Associated Press.

“Unfortunately, developing an effective HIV vaccine has proven to be tremendously difficult, and despite the committed efforts of many researchers around the world, progress simply has not been fast enough,” he said.

Dr Hellmann acknowledged that an effective vaccine may still be 10 years away. According to The Los Angeles Times, eleven of the new grants, totalling $195 million, are for multinational projects to improve the ability of potential vaccines to stimulate the two kinds of immunity: antibodies that can attack a broad spectrum of viruses and immune cells that can destroy infected cells before viruses reproduce.

Mitchell Warren, executive director of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, told the AP that he complimented the foundation on the approach it was taking, but warned against assuming that this is enough money to finish the work.

“Funding for AIDS vaccine research is still short of what we need,” Mr Warren said.

Nearly 100 AIDS vaccine candidates are now in trials around the world, but experts agree that none is likely to provide significant protection against the virus.

The other five grants, totalling $92 million, are for establishing central laboratories to enhance collaboration among the researchers.

The Seattle Times reports that worldwide spending on AIDS vaccines totals about $682 million a year.

While the Gates money is a significant boost, The Times says the group estimates it will take about $1 billion a year to achieve a marketable vaccine.

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