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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is investing $287-million to jump-start the frustratingly unsuccessful attempts to create a vaccine against HIV and AIDS.

The foundation hopes to use its clout, financial and otherwise, to force scientists to work together, rather than in rivalry, to find the holy grail that is a vaccine.

"Progress simply has not been fast enough," said Nicholas Hellman, acting director of the HIV, TB and Reproductive Health program at the foundation.

"There still remain many unanswered scientific questions and, in addition, resources haven't always been allocated in the most strategic way, which means there is also a greater need for collaborations amongst investigators."

He said the grants will bring together more than 165 investigators from 19 countries in the hope that collaboration will speed up vaccine development.

The funding is being doled out in 16 grants that will fund 11 international groups focusing on vaccine discovery and five laboratories providing standardized testing.

The initiative will transform how vaccine research is conducted, said Juliana McElrath, associate head of the infectious diseases program at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, which is among the grant recipients.

"Until now, most HIV vaccine research has been conducted by small groups of investigators that, for the most part, have worked independently. While critical progress has been made, the HIV vaccine field has lacked a shared, focused strategy," Dr. McElrath said. She said the joint process should also ensure that the best vaccine candidate advances fastest to clinical trials.

The human immunodeficiency virus was identified as the cause of AIDS in 1984, but creating an effective vaccine has proved elusive. More than 30 vaccines are being tested on people, but scientists hold out little hope that any of them will prevent HIV infection in large numbers of people. No major breakthroughs are expected to be announced at next month's International AIDS Conference in Toronto.

Mr. and Mrs. Gates will attend the conference, as will former U.S. president Bill Clinton, actor Richard Gere and United Nations special envoy Stephen Lewis. The glitterati of the scientific world are also expected to attend the conference, which is expecting more than 20,000 delegates.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the world's biggest philanthropic enterprise, with assets of around $62-billion (U.S.). By next year, its annual grants will reach $3-billion, about as much as Canada spends on foreign aid. The foundation focuses principally on infectious diseases ravaging the developing world, such as HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. It has also invested heavily in making vaccines available to the world's poor.

Mitchell Warren, executive director of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, a New-York-based charity, said that $682-million was invested in HIV-AIDS vaccine research in 2004, a number that remains well short of what is required.

"While these new grants are very important, no one should conclude that this very generous support from the Gates Foundation is adequate to get us across the finish line to an HIV vaccine," he said. "Just as no one research agency is likely to find a vaccine by themselves, no one funding agency will do it alone either."

An estimated 38.4 million people worldwide were living with HIV-AIDS in 2005, according to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV-AIDS.

Last year, there were an estimated 4.1 million new infections and 2.8 million deaths.

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