Mining co's help fund Australia's Virax African HIV trial

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viraxSYDNEY, Nov 27 (Reuters) - Australian biotech firm Virax Holdings Ltd. (<VHL.AX>) said on Monday eight big mining companies had agreed to pay for trials of its HIV vaccine in South Africa, which is battling one of the world's worst AIDS crises. Virax applied to South Africa's drugs regulator in September for approval to conduct a clinical trial of its VIR201 HIV vaccine, with global mining giant BHP Billiton Ltd./Plc. (<BHP.AX> <BHP.L>) as the main sponsor.

On Monday it said another seven mining and metals firms from Australia, Britain, Japan and South Africa had offered funding.

Details of the total funding were not disclosed, but Virax spokesman Tim Duncan said the typical cost for trials of this size was usually between $5 million and $6 million.

Duncan said biotech firms often find it difficult to get early-stage funding for clinical trials, but Virax had positioned itself as potentially able to solve some problems facing large mining and metals companies operating in South Africa.

"Part of it is general social responsibility, but a lot of it is actually driven by the fact they need solutions for their work forces," he said.

An estimated one in nine of South Africa's population, or more than 5.5 million people, are infected with HIV.

Mining has been the sector hit hardest, according to a business survey last year by the Bureau for Economic Research.

Over half of mining firms said the pandemic had already hit profits and nearly 80 percent said it was expected to have an impact on their bottom line in five years.

A United Nations' report published last week said South Africa's AIDS epidemic continues unabated, suggesting the disease's prevalence has yet to peak.

The proposed trial of VIR201, which aims to stimulate the body's immune system and suppress virus levels in HIV-infected patients, will involve 140 HIV positive subjects in five HIV clinics across four South African provinces.

Duncan said Virax's application to run the trials was expected to be considered shortly, and that it was looking for more local support to help it achieve full funding in early 2007.

The seven new participants announced on Monday were Gold Fields Ltd. <GFIJ.J>, Harmony Gold Mining <HARJ.J>, Lonmin Plc. <LMI.L>, Mitsubishi Materials Corp. <5711.T>, Nippon Mining & Metals Co. Ltd., part of Nippon Mining Holdings <5016.T> group, Rio Tinto Ltd./Plc. <RIO.AX><RIO.L> and Sumitomo Metal Mining Co. Ltd. <5713.T>.

source - Reuters