More than half of all HIV-infected individuals are on drugs to treat the virus for the first time in the four-decade global AIDS epidemic, the United Nations said in an official report on 20 July. AIDS deaths are also almost halved of what they were in 2005, based on estimates.

Experts worldwide applauded the progress, but questioned if the billions spent in fighting the epidemic for the past two decades should have produced more impressive results.

"When you think about the money that's been spent on AIDS, it could have been better," expressed Sophie Harman, a senior lecturer in global health politics at Queen Mary University in London.

More resources seem to have been channelled to strengthening health systems in poor countries, she added.

"The real test will come in five to 10 years once the funding goes down," Harman said, warning that some countries might not have the funds to sustain the U.N.-funded AIDS programmes on their own.

Worsening the problem, the Trump administration has also proposed a 31% cut in contributions to the U.N. starting this October.

UN report points towards positive outcomes

The report states that approximately 19.5 million HIV-infected individuals were taking AIDS drugs in 2016, compared to 17.1 million in 2015. According to UNAIDS, there were about 36.7 million HIV-infected individuals in 2016, up slightly from 36.1 million the year before.

Michel Sidibe, UNAIDS' executive director said that more countries are starting treatment as early as possible, proving right the scientific findings of the approach ̶ keeping people healthy and preventing new infections.

Many studies also show that those whose infections are under control, are far less likely to pass it on to an uninfected sex partner.

"Our quest to end AIDS has only just begun," he wrote.

The report also noted that about three-quarters of HIV-infected pregnant women now have access to medicines that prevent the virus from being transmitted to their babies. Five hard-hit African nations also now provide lifelong drugs to 95% of pregnant and breast-feeding women with the virus.

The death toll from the disease has also dropped dramatically in recent years as the drugs are now more affordable and accessible, making the illness a manageable disease.

AIDS unlikely to be eliminated forever

But Harman said that the report was unrealistic.

"I can see why they do it, because it's bold and no one would ever disagree with the idea of ending AIDS. But I think we should be pragmatic," she remarked. "I don't think we will ever eliminate AIDS; so it's possible this will give people the wrong idea,” she added.

Elsewhere, the World Health Organisation (WHO) unintentionally supported Harman's statement, warning that there are rising levels of resistance to HIV drugs. This could undermine promising progress against the AIDS epidemic, if effective action is not taken early.

Six out of 11 countries surveyed in Africa, Asia and Latin America observed more than 10% of HIV patients on antiretroviral drugs, already have a strain resistant to most widely-used medicines.

Upon reaching the 10% threshold, the WHO recommends countries to urgently review their HIV treatment programmes and switch to different drug regimens to limit the spread of resistance.

Hope still remains in cows

All hope is not lost as researchers from the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI ) and the Scripps Research Institute have discovered that special types of antibodies produced by cows, can neutralise HIV. This could mean a vaccine in the future.

The cow's antibodies, which would normally take humans three to five years to develop, were produced by the cow's immune system in a matter of weeks. It also showed that it could neutralise 20% of HIV strains within 42 days. By 381 days, 96% of strains were neutralised in lab tests.

"Unlike human antibodies, cattle antibodies are more likely to bear unique features and gain an edge over HIV, said Dr Dennis Burton, part of the research team.

Creating a vaccine out of cow antibodies still remains a significant challenge – but the team says that the cattle study could help point the way. MIMS

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