Press Releases

1999 Releases

Oak Foundation Gives Harvard AIDS Institute $2.5 million for Southern African Research

For immediate release: March 24, 1999 

Boston, MA--To combat the AIDS epidemic scything through southern Africa at a furious rate with particularly devastating results for women and children, the Oak Foundation has given the Harvard AIDS Institute a $2.5 million grant to start an unprecedented research and training program in the region.

The foundation's grant will support an ambitious three-year program that has four separate but interrelated components: basic research, vaccine development, a demonstration project aimed at improving drug treatment to block mother-to-infant transmission of HIV, and a training program for young investigators from the southern African region.

"We are deeply indebted to the Oak Foundation for its generous support of our efforts in southern Africa," said Max Essex, chair of the Harvard AIDS Institute, which is based at the Harvard School of Public Health. "As terrifying as the AIDS epidemic is in southern Africa at the moment, we believe our research efforts, along with many others, can turn the tide, save lives, and ease suffering."

The Institute's basic research involves sequencing the genome (the complete set of genes) of HIV1-C, the especially virulent and transmissible variety of AIDS virus prevalent in southern Africa. The Institute's goal is to isolate 50-100 representative viruses, sequence their genomes, and then analyze the results with an eye toward understanding how and why the viruses zero in on certain cells of the immune system.

This work, which will involve mapping sets of mutations in the virus and altering surface molecules, is expected to lay the groundwork for designing-and then conducting safety tests-of a prototype vaccine based on HIV1-C.

The grant will also a support a demonstration project for 1,500 HIV-positive pregnant women, the purpose of which will be to further test and improve drug treatment used to block mother-to-infant transmission of HIV. All the women and children in this trial will receive treatment. Harvard researchers also expect this project to yield valuable knowledge and experience for vaccine research, particularly with respect to the children infected through breastfeeding.

Finally, the grant will also provide crucial support for the training of approximately ten African investigators at Harvard in cutting-edge AIDS science and research techniques. The training program is designed to seed the development of research capacity in Africa so African governments, universities, and research centers can build their own AIDS research programs.

No place in the world has been hit as hard by AIDS as southern Africa. In Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe, between one-fifth and one-quarter of people aged 15-49 are afflicted with HIV or AIDS. One in every ten new HIV infections now occurs in South Africa, which until fairly recently had been protected from the epidemic. The epidemic has already killed ten million people in sub-Saharan Africa--90 percent of the world's AIDS deaths--and another 20 million will almost certainly die because treatment drugs are out of reach.

Essex and his colleagues at the Harvard AIDS Institute have been researching AIDS in Africa for over ten years. The Institute began collaborating with researchers in Dakar, Senegal, in 1985, tracking HIV and AIDS rates among 1,000 female sex workers in that city and two smaller Senegalese towns. The Institute's research has shown that infection with HIV-2, a far less virulent form of the virus, protects against infection with HIV-1, a finding with implications for vaccine development. More recently, the Institute has tracked the epidemic in Botswana and has documented the rapid rate at which the virus there mutates.

The Oak Foundation is an international philanthropy that commits its resources to address the issues of global social and environmental concerns, particularly those that have a major impact on the lives of the disadvantaged. The Foundation has offices in Boston, Geneva, London, and Harare, Zimbabwe.

For further information, please contact:

Michael Broder, Harvard AIDS Institute, Manager of Communications
Phone: (617) 432-4121,