By The Associated Press
ATLANTA – Currently developed AIDS treatment drugs may also act as a vaccine against the disease, say researchers. The two drugs have shown such promise in early experiments in monkeys that officials just expanded tests of them in people around the world.
“This is the first thing I’ve seen at this point that I think really could have a prevention impact,” said Thomas Folks, a federal scientist since the earliest days of AIDS. “If it works, it could be distributed quickly and could blunt the epidemic.”
The drugs are tenofovir (Viread) and emtricitabine, or FTC (Emtriva), sold in combination as Truvada by Gilead Sciences Inc., a California company best known for inventing Tamiflu, a drug showing promise against bird flu.
Taking them daily or weekly before exposure to the virus – the time frame isn’t known yet – may keep it from taking hold, just as taking malaria drugs in advance can prevent that disease when someone is bitten by an infected mosquito, scientists believe.
If larger tests show the drugs work, they could be given to people at highest risk of HIV – from gay men in American cities to women in Africa who catch the virus from their partners.
Some fear that this could make things worse.
“I’ve had people make comments to me, ‘Aren’t you just making the world safer for unsafe sex?”‘ said Dr. Lynn Paxton, team leader for the project at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The drugs would only be given to people along with counseling and condoms, and regular testing to make sure they haven’t become infected. Health officials also think the strategy has potential for more people than just gay men, though they don’t intend to give it “to housewives in Peoria,” as Paxton puts it.
Some uninfected gay men already are getting the drugs from friends with AIDS or doctors willing to prescribe them to patients who admit not using condoms. This kind of use could lead to drug resistance and is one reason officials are rushing to expand studies.
Unlike vaccines, which work through the immune system – the very thing HIV destroys – AIDS drugs simply keep the virus from reproducing. They already are used to prevent infection in health care workers accidentally exposed to HIV, and in babies whose pregnant mothers receive them.