Eradicating AIDS Is Within Our Grasp

French researchers have made significant discoveries that lead them to believe that a vaccine is imminent. It would target the protein that allows the HIV virus to multipy.

"Science has never been so close"
"Science has never been so close"
Paul Molga

MARSEILLE — Thirty years since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, therapeutic leads against the virus are finally starting to appear clearly, making the notion of a cure realistic.

"Science has never been so close to breaking the mutation mechanism that protects HIV from the body's natural defense system," explains Michel-Paul Correa, director of the International Institute for the Development and Support of Innovative Scientific Research.

His scientific committee, headed by the man who co-discovered the virus, French virologist Claude Chermann, has pinned its hopes on a series of experiments that target the enzymes necessary for the virus to multiply or the receptors that enable it to enter the cells.

The most advanced research projects are those being carried out by French startup Biosantech, which is developing a vaccine that "provokes an encouraging immune response," says Dr. Jean Bora de Mareuil, head of the company's research and development. The molecule this biotechnology company developed targets the Tat protein, which enables the virus to multiply.

The scientific community is well acquainted with this key protein. In the 1990s, one of its variants was identified in a young Gabonese woman named Oyi, who carried the virus but was in good health, as were her three children, all born HIV-negative. "We formulated the hypothesis that a synthetic active ingredient derived from Tat Oyi (the variant found in the Gabonese patient) acted like an "anti-Tat" protein, preventing the virus from multiplying," de Mareuil explains. "By neutralizing it, we allow the body to restore its cellular immunity so it can eliminate the contaminated cells by itself."

Tested on HIV-infected monkeys, Tat Oyi has proved to be as efficient as it was in the study on Gabonese patients. Harvard University researchers confirmed the results, saying that it was indeed the Tat Oyi protein that, by producing the adequate antibodies to fight against the Tat protein, enabled monkeys to resist the virus. In France, Marseille-based Erwann Loret, the researcher who started the experiments, and his team at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), filed a patent for which Biosantech has the exclusive license.

From monkeys to people

Human trials began in April 2013, and the tests on 48 HIV-positive patients have proved the absence of toxicity in the vaccine. Phase two should be complete by the end of the year. It's expected to determine what dosage is the most efficient to produce anti-Tat antibodies.

Divided into three groups, each patient received three injections of different concentrations or a placebo before their triple combination therapy was halted for two months. "Several patients continued to show a very low level of viral reproduction after the interruption of their therapy," de Mareuil says.

There will be a new trial in 2015 with 80 additional patients to test the absence of side effects and confirm the treatment's efficiency. The goal is to have at least 30% of patients with an undetectable virus after their treatment is suspended. If that's successful, a final study will test the vaccine on a large scale according to UNAID norms by comparing it to placebos and reference treatments.

Anti-Tat is not the first vaccine to be assessed. Over the last three decades, more than 600 clinical tests have been conducted. None went beyond phase one. Before the summer, Biosantech managed to raise 800,000 euros ($1 million) from 107 investors, making it the most important crowdfunding campaign to date in France.

But the vaccine isn't the only promising lead. In early November, virologist Didier Raoult from the Méditerranée Infection foundation, and the team of professor Yves Lévy, the new president of the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, made a significant discovery. They demonstrated that a previously unknown anti-viral enzyme called Apobec was not activated by the AIDS virus. That suggests that "the reactivation of this enzyme could open up new prospects to cure the disease," Raoult says.

This hypothesis originated from the observation of how the virus evolves in koala bears. The infected animals have spontaneously recovered by integrating the virus in their genes until they were able to neutralize it and transfer their immunity to their offspring. The same thing is happening among humans. "About 8% of the human genome contains deactivated retroviruses," Raoult says.

Concerning AIDS, the so-called "endogenization" process — basically, spontaneous cure — has been observed in at least two HIV-positive patients. Their genome sequence showed that the virus was unactivated, probably because of the action of the Apobec enzyme on the DNA of the virus. One of these patients, aged 57, is now considered cured, 30 years after being diagnosed with HIV.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!