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Italy's Funds for HIV/AIDS Research Running Dry

Despite Italian HIV/AIDS researchers earning a top tier berth in the field, the government has no plans to continue the National AIDS Research Program that, at its peak in the 1990s, received €25 million a year. The program, long part of the Istituto Superiore di Sanità (ISS), the equivalent of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, in 2009 was transferred to the Ministry of Health and given less than €10 million that did not become available until this year. The money will run out in 2012, and there has been no new call for funding. "There is no plan to relaunch the AIDS Research Program," laments Stefano Vella, who chairs the research group on HIV, hepatitis, and global health for ISS in Rome. "Hard times here."

Immunologist Guido Poli of the San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Milan notes that this "very silent funeral for the public funding to HIV/AIDS research" comes at a most inauspicious time: Rome will host the International AIDS Conference 17-20 July sponsored by the International AIDS Society. "What I find unacceptable is the silence and resignation that is perceivable within the research community," says Poli. He further complains that Italy is the only country in the G8 that has not recently contributed to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Vella, who represents Italy at the European Commission Directorate-General for Research in Brussels, says the country is also performing poorly with Europe-based collaborations. "The total and suicidal absence there of the country's strategic view is the main cause of the poor performance at the European level," says Vella.

ISS President Enrico Garaci says the ministry of health "is committed to continuing to support the endeavour" and that "the option of directly funding the AIDS research through a dedicated project remains on the table and is being actively pursued for the upcoming years (from 2013 and beyond)." He notes, too, that HIV/AIDS researchers can also receive funding through other avenues in Italy and the European community. "In conclusion, the availability of a dedicated project on AIDS needs to be warranted, yet it should be felt not as substitutive of a more general competition with the other Italian and European scientists active in different fields," writes Garaci in an e-mail.

Poli counters that "the option" has been on the table for many months, and notes that HIV/AIDS grants often suffer when they compete for more general funds because of the perception that they will receive support through the National AIDS Program. He notes that the Ministry of Health in 2009 awarded HIV/AIDS projects only €2 million out of a €100 million pot, and only one of these projects was for basic research. "HIV/AIDS research is indeed disfavored in the absence of a dedicated funding activity," concludes Poli.

*This item has been corrected on 30 June to reflect that the National AIDS Research Program transferred to the Ministry of Health in 2009 and given less than €10 million, not less than €2 million, that did not become available until this year.