updated 7/28/2009 4:22:41 PM ET 2009-07-28T20:22:41

South Africa launched a new HIV/AIDS research initiative Tuesday aimed at stimulating scientific studies into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the disease.

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South Africa had about 5.2 million people living with HIV last year — the highest number of any country in the world. The government is under pressure to show its commitment to combat AIDS after years of official denial, neglect and unscientific responses that fueled the world's worst AIDS crisis.

The South Africa HIV/AIDS Research and Innovation Platform (SHARP) aims to back research including studies on new or improved treatments, drug design, gene research and vaccines.

The Department of Science and Technology has pledged 45 million rand ($5.8 million) over the next three years to fund nine research proposals.

South Africa launched an AIDS vaccine created by its own researchers last week but the proud moment was marred when it emerged that state funding for the trial had been halted.

Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor on Tuesday denied that the government had "dumped" funding AIDS vaccines but said it wanted to take a broader approach to the problem.

"The actual development of an effective vaccine will take many more years and the collaborative efforts of our country's best scientists," Pandor said. "In the meantime, South Africa is investigating every possible avenue to beat the virus."

The health department, not the science department, said it will spend 12 million rand ($1.5 million) on the vaccine initiative.

Research into an AIDS vaccine has run into so many problems that some experts have questioned sinking scarce funds into developing a vaccine, saying the money might be better spent on prevention and education.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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