The discovery of an antiviral vaginal gel that can reduce HIV infection by around 50 per cent is good news, however qualified. More research is needed: the current clinical trial, in Durban, tested just 889 women. But the virtue of the gel is that it gives some autonomy to women, reducing their chance of contracting the virus when male partners refuse to use a condom. In South Africa, a third of all women between 20 and 34 are thought to be HIV-positive, and they account for some 60 per cent of new infections.
The gel contains an antiviral drug that interferes with a key enzyme involved in viral replication, unlike previous efforts which tried either to inhibit the entry of the virus into cells or kill the virus (or infected cells) directly. It should be very cheap per dose and has few side-effects. The question now is how to balance the urgent need against time-consuming confirmation and in-depth clinical testing.