‘Frenzy’ Over Controversial Thai AIDS ‘Drug’ May Hinder Treatment EffortsV-1 Immunitor, touted as the "first-ever clinically tested oral AIDS vaccine" by its Thai manufacturers, is causing a "frenzy" among Thais with HIV, who, despite a government report calling the substance ineffective, continue to clamor for the pills, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. The claims have "outraged" many health experts, who fear that the pills are "setting back the cause of AIDS treatment" in the country. The substance, currently registered as a food supplement, has not undergone any "rigorous scientific testing," but the Salang Bunnag Foundation, which is distributing the drug, claims it is a cure for AIDS and can act as an oral vaccine against HIV. In June, two drug give-aways drew more than 20,000 people. Thailand has nearly 755,000 people with HIV/AIDS, and the vast majority cannot afford the $125-a-month price tag for traditional HIV/AIDS medications, leading many to seize on the promises made by V-1's manufacturers. "It's the usual story of what happens when there is an absence of any sort of orthodox treatment," David Cooper, director of the National Center in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research at New South Wales University in Australia, said. AIDS activists like Thai Sen. Jon Ungphakorn "insis[t]" that the media attention being given to V-1 is "distracting from a campaign to obtain generic AIDS drugs for the poor" in Thailand. "If (V-1's makers) give it out of the kindness of their hearts and call it a food supplement, I wouldn't interfere. But if they claim it's an oral vaccine that treats and cures AIDS, the Ministry of Public Health should charge them with making false claims," he said. But some say that Prime Minister Thaskin Shinawatra's government has declined to stop the distribution of the pills out of "fear of losing popularity." Others worry that the demand for V-1 could spread to other countries that are "overwhelmed by AIDS and have few resources." Paul Cawthorne of Doctors Without Borders said, "If they use this kind of mass hysteria, governments will be under a lot of pressure to let it happen."
Looking to Expand
Despite a six-month government study on the drug in 50 AIDS patients that found that the pills had "no effect, either positive or negative," Salang Bunnag, the foundation's head, says he will continue to distribute the drug. "If [the government] wants to arrest me, let [them] arrest me. I will tell my patients to go to public health and demand V-1. Then we will see what happens when 30,000 people" protest, Bunnag said. If the drug, which the foundation said contains magnesium, calcium and "nonliving chemical matter," is ever approved for retail, the foundation could net sales of $36.5 million annually in Thailand alone, according to a foundation member. The foundation said it plans to expand distribution to other countries as well (Frankel, San Francisco Chronicle, 8/27).