Ahead of World AIDS Day 2019, a new international report by Elsevier’s Analytical Services on the global state of HIV/AIDS research has identified South Africa as one of the leading research producers worldwide.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) has also been singled out as the most influential HIV/AIDS research institution globally based on the impact of its published papers. It is joined in the list of the top 10 HIV/AIDS research institutions by the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

According to the “HIV/AIDS research insights: impacts, trends, opportunities” report, South Africa’s research output in the field accounts for a total of 6 823 publications in the time period. The data in the report comes from Elsevier’s SciVal and Scopus database, and covers research published between 2014 and 2018.

South Africa’s leading position may reflect the high priority HIV/AIDS research has taken in countries where incidence rate is high and suggests strong support for research overall, through infrastructure, funding and research workforce.

The report shows that the relative activity in HIV/AIDS research is highest in four countries with a high burden from the disease: South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, and Nigeria.

“This report shows the tight relationship between burden of disease and research publishing,” explains Linda-Gail Bekker, professor of medicine at the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre UCT and the immediate past president of the International AIDS Society.

“South Africa is a relatively small country but has carried a massive HIV burden and punched well above its weight in research publishing. It also shows that, like the epidemic, the response has been global with significant north-south collaboration.”

The US produced the greatest number of research publications on the topic, followed by the UK. South Africa takes third place and generates the greatest amount of research into the disease of any developing country across the world.

One of the driving successes behind South Africa’s output is international collaboration – approximately 72% of the research produced by UCT and Wits involved international collaborators.

Professor Salim Abdool Karim, director of CAPRISA and CAPRISA Professor of Global Health at Columbia University, adds: “This insightful analysis clearly demonstrates that the African countries most impacted by the AIDS epidemic (Uganda, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria) are producing disproportionately more HIV papers in relation to their country’s total research publications.

“In particular, South Africa, which has about one fifth of the global HIV burden is highly ranked globally for having the third highest number of HIV publications, many of which emanate from international collaborations and are being highly cited.”

Other key findings from the report include:

* Research output has tracked with the incidence rate for HIV/AIDS. As the global incidence rate of HIV/AIDS increased, so too did the research output on the subject.

* The incidence burden of HIV/AIDS is now declining – and the relative level of research into the subject is similarly on the decline. This suggests the relative success of HIV/AIDS research in driving a decline in incidence rate.

* The report also looks at research trends in the field of HIV/AIDS research and reveals their roles in understanding disease and developing highly successful treatments.

* Globally, an estimated 38-million people are infected with HIV, and the vast majority – over 25-million – live in Africa. Understanding research trends and setting new targets is crucial to maintaining the tremendous progress already made in reducing the incidence and burden of the disease.

Bamini Jayabalasingham, senior analyst of Elsevier Analytical Services, says: “It’s striking to see that only 13 years after the research community built up a knowledge base in response to this disease, the incidence rate for HIV/AIDS began to decline. It speaks to the great impact that research can have in improving public health.”