Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday called a halt to a controversial multimillion-dollar trial that would use sex workers as a test group to study whether a drug currently used to treat HIV/AIDS can prevent infection.
During a ceremony at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Wednesday morning, Hun Sen told newly appointed Minister of Health Nuth Sokhom to stop the trial of the anti-retroviral drug tenofovir, the minister said Thursday.
“His concern is that we should do [the trial] only on animals,” Nuth Sokhom said, explaining the prime minister’s decision.
The drug, manufactured by the US pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, has been tested on animals, and is currently used to treat HIV infections, but its long-term effects on HIV-negative people have not been studied.
The trial, which aimed to test the drug on HIV-negative sex workers, was approved by the Ministry of Health in 2003 after it was approved by ethics boards in the US and Australia.
But as preparations for the trial got under way, observers and sex workers raised serious concerns.
Some worried that participating in the trial, funded in part by the US National Institutes of Health and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, would encourage sex workers to forgo condom use. Others were concerned about the long-term health effects of the drug, especially on a group with limited resources for treatment.
“There has been a lot of controversy because in this country you need to be careful about medicine given to vulnerable people,” said Richard Veerman, head of mission, Medecins Sans Frontiers Belgium.
Women’s Network for Unity, a group representing sex workers, called for a boycott of the trial because it did not include long-term medical care for participants.
Hun Sen recently expressed repeated worries about the trial, Nuth Sokhom said.
The prime minister spoke out publicly against the trials on Aug 3 at a groundbreaking ceremony at Kantha Bopha I Hospital in Phnom Penh. “They should not conduct experiments with Cambodians. They should do it with animals,” he said at the ceremony.
Nuth Sokhom said ministry representatives had prepared a report addressing the prime minister’s worries, but Hun Sen put the brakes on the study before the report reached his desk.
Nuth Sokhom said he would notify the trial’s coordinator in Cambodia, the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and Sexually Transmitted Infections. He said officials there will determine the procedure for stopping the study, which began training outreach workers several weeks ago, but had not started recruiting volunteers. NCHADS officials declined to comment on the order.