South Africa has launched human trials of the first African-produced HIV vaccine, as scientists seek new approaches to battling AIDS in the world’s worst-affected country.
The locally produced vaccine, being tested in Soweto and Cape Town as well as a site in the US, was the highlight of an international AIDS conference in Cape Town this week where the trial was launched.
A successful vaccine, while years away, could be the only solution for a country with nearly 6 million infections, where the financial burden of treating AIDS patients threatens to cripple the health system.
“If we don’t find a prevention strategy for South Africa, we are in big trouble. We are not going to treat ourselves out of this epidemic,” said Linda-Gail Bekker, a principal investigator on the trial.
“We can’t afford to let 6 million people die. The question is, can we afford to keep the tap flowing. There is no question that a vaccine is the best way to treat an infectious disease,” she said.
A total of 48 volunteers will take part in the study, 36 in South Africa.
The phase-one trials will investigate whether the drug is safe for human use.
The vaccine, developed at the University of Cape Town and manufactured with input from the US National Institutes of Health, is the first to go on trial in the country since 2007.
That trial of a vaccine by pharmaceutical company Merck was stopped after studies found it actually heightened the risk of AIDS infection, striking a double blow to efforts to find a vaccine 30 years into the pandemic.
Disappointments in the vaccine effort have sparked arguments that more money should be spent on other prevention efforts, such as microbicides — anti-HIV substances that reduce risk of infection — and male circumcision, which show more potential.
A report released at the conference of the International AIDS Society on treatment showed that for the first time in a decade, AIDS vaccine research declined — by 10 percent last year.
“There is this notion of ‘let’s go back to the drawing board,’ [but] you still gain an enormous amount of knowledge even though studies get stopped,” Bekker said.
Some 25 million people have died from AIDS. While a preventative vaccine is seen as first prize, a so-called therapeutic vaccine could ease the lives of millions taking anti-retroviral (ARVs) drugs.