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CAMEROON: Government suspends trial of AIDS drug

Photo: IRIN
Yaounde, 4 February 2005 (PlusNews) - Clinical trials of an anti-AIDS drug being tested on sex workers by US pharmaceutical company Gilead have been suspended, the Cameroonian government said on Friday after controversy over how the trials are being conducted.

AIDS activists in Cameroon and France have alleged that the 400 female volunteers taking part had not been sufficiently informed of the risks involved and were not being provided with any healthcare in the event that they become infected with HIV during the course of the trial.

The drug in question is Tenofovir, an antiretroviral (ARV) drug manufactured by the US pharmaceutical company Gilead, which has been sold under the brand name Viread for the past three years.

Now the drug is being tested as a possible prophylactic to prevent people becoming infected with the HI virus.

The clinical trial in Cameroon was launched in September 2004 with 400 sex workers who were free of infection from the virus.

Half of them were given a daily pill of Tenofovir, the other half a placebo. At the end of the trials, all the women are due to be re-tested for HIV.

"Because of dysfunctions that have been noted by the audit mission, clinical testing of Tenofovir carried out in Douala are suspended from (this) date," said a statement from Health Minister Urbain Olanguena Awono that was read out on state radio. "Certain corrective measures need to be taken by the research team."

The minister's statement did not go into details about why the tests were "dysfunctional" or what corrective measures the government had demanded from Family Health International (FHI), the US-based organisation carrying out the trials on behalf of Gilead.

Professor Anderson Doh Sama, the co-ordinator of the tests in the port city of Douala said that the trials had been halted simply because of administrative problems.

"The clinical trial will resume as soon as possible because we have been in constant discussion with the [government health representative] who knows and monitors all that we are doing," he told PlusNews.

Meanwhile, AIDS activists demanded more clarity from the health ministry.

"We want the government to be more transparent on the matter, because we know that the women who agreed to participate in this experiment will certainly become HIV-positive, yet there is no promise of ARV drugs for the participants at the end of the exercise," said Arthur Noumbi, from Elite Politechnicienne - one of the NGOs campaigning against the trials.

"Although the researchers claim that they are giving the prostitutes condoms, this is just a hoax, because we know that to really get the drug effectively tested, the prostitutes need to have unprotected sex with their clients," said Noumbi.

Cameroon is popular with scientists as a testing ground for anti-AIDS drugs because every known sub-type of the HIV virus is found in the country.

But Noumbi and others say that the women used in the trial would have been treated very differently had the tests been carried out in the US.

Similar trials are being conducted on sex workers in Ghana and Nigeria and on homosexual men in the US with the support of a US $6.5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Gilead has already been forced to scrap trials of Tenofovir in Cambodia, after a similar ethics row.

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