The United Nations’ goal of achieving “universal access” to anti-HIV drugs and care by 2010 is unlikely to be reached.

Speaking on the sidelines of the International AIDS Conference, Global Fund chief Michel Kazatchkine and UNAIDS head Peter Piot said that China and other fast-advancing economies could shoulder more of their own burdens in the future, freeing up resources for poorer countries.

“When we look at global targets, none of us believes that it will be 100 percent everywhere,” Mr. Kazatchkine told a group of reporters.

“But if you look at individual countries, and if you look at the percent that have achieved universal coverage or [will] be close to universal coverage, there may be much more than you may think of.”

The 2010 target, enshrined in a June 2006 UN General Assembly resolution and supported by the Group of Eight (G8) industrial nations, is emerging as a touchy political issue.

Three million poor people now have been able to grasp the drug lifeline, thanks to a big increase in the past two years, but this is still two-thirds short of the total in need and time is running out to meet the deadline.

As a result, activists have closely scrutinised the July G8 summit statement and last week’s UNAIDS report on the state of the pandemic.

Some see a weakening verbal commitment to 2010 and a dangerous slippage to 2015, which is also the goal date for the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal on reversing the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Mr. Piot, UNAIDS’ executive director, said, however, that the 2010 commitment has not changed.

“2010 is 18 months from now,” he noted. “What we’ve seen is that in a number of countries, they’ve already reached their universal access targets, others not.”

Some countries could achieve universal access in 2011 or 2012, in line with their national programmes, Mr. Piot’s spokesman explained.

33 million people around the world are infected with HIV, 90 percent of whom live in developing countries.

By some estimates, universal access will cost $54 billion (£27bn) per year in 2015 – and the bill will endure for decades, as the treatment is for the rest of one’s life.

Mr. Kazatchkine said he looked to the G8 countries, which account for 90 percent of contributions to the Global Fund, to meet their commitments.