The little blue pill that can prevent HIV is being launched in a large-scale clinical trial in the UK.
Known as PrEP, the drug is used for the prophylactic prevention against the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). It is a combination of two antiretroviral drugs, tenofovir and emtricitabine, that prevent HIV by blocking the key viral enzyme reverse transcriptase. Without this enzyme, the virus can’t replicate itself and transmission is significantly reduced. While studies differ in the exact quantification of the drug’s efficacy, it’s clear that the drug is highly effective against HIV infection.
For people at risk of contracting HIV by sex, taking the drug as pre-exposure prophylaxis could decrease the risk by as much as 90%. But while the evidence is highly convincing, a clinical trial to assess how the drug works in real-life will be quite informative.
Enter the National Health Service in England, which recently lost a court battle and will now shoulder the cost of the trial. The trial will be one of the largest of its kind, anticipating the enrollment of 10,000 participants and running for the next three years.
“Currently 13,500 people are living in the UK with undiagnosed HIV and we are still seeing around 5,000 new infections each year,” said Kevin Fenton, director of health and wellbeing at the Public Health of England. “Given we are in the fourth decade of this epidemic there are too many new infections occurring, and we need to use all tools available to save lives and money.”
One of the biggest criticisms against PrEP is its immense cost relative to condoms, which are also quite effective against the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. But, proponents of the drug and the research say that in the long run, the cost of PrEP would be significantly less than treating HIV patients.
But it’s not all about saving money. For Harry Dodd, a participant in the trial as one of about 500 homosexual men in England, “it’s about saving lives.”
"I've seen the panic on the face of previous boyfriends when they are awaiting their [HIV test] results - it's a huge fear and it affects everything you do,” said Dodd. "To be able to have sex without having that fear hanging over you all the time is huge."
"Too many people seem to think it will encourage a hedonistic lifestyle, but for me this is about saving lives," he said. "People reacted with cynicism when the contraceptive pill for women was first introduced. For me, taking Prep has helped me to trust again, have relationships and build bridges and that shouldn't be taken away."
Additional sources: BBC News
, The Independent