Tue, Sep 29, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Thailand praised for vaccine trial

TOUGH CHOICE Despite pressure from scientists in 2004, more than 16,000 Thai volunteers were given a vaccine that proved to cut the risk of HIV infection

REUTERS , HONG KONG

An experimental AIDS vaccine that appears to be the first to protect people was mired for years in deep controversy and credit for its success must go to Thailand, where the trial was conducted, experts said.

The trial was criticized by 22 prominent US scientists in 2004 because the vaccine was widely expected to have no effect.

The critics, including Robert Gallo of the Institute of Human Virology in Baltimore, who helped discover the AIDS virus, signed a letter accusing the US government of wasting more than US$100 million by funding it.

But Thailand’s health authorities and their US partners at the National Institutes of Health and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research pressed on with the trial, which involved 16,000 Thai volunteers.

“It was a tough decision. I am glad we made it,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who defied the criticism and continued the trial.

The trial vaccine was made using two failed products — Sanofi-Pasteur’s ALVAC canary pox/HIV vaccine and AIDSVAX, made by a San Francisco company and now owned by the non-profit Global Solutions for Infectious Disease.

“This trial was controversial. In 2004, prominent US scientists wrote a letter to Science magazine saying this shouldn’t be done because the vaccines that had previously been tested were found wanting and didn’t stimulate immunity of the right kind,” said Donald Burke, dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health.

“But given the importance of the AIDS epidemic, the decision was made to go forward regardless of these criticisms. It was a difficult choice, but a courageous choice,” said Burke, who was head of AIDS research at Walter Reed before retiring in 1997.

Burke isolated the AIDS virus taken from a young HIV-infected Thai soldier in 1989, after Thai army doctors discovered an outbreak of HIV among young recruits in Chiang Mai. That virus sample went on to become one of the seed viruses in the experimental vaccine, Burke said.

The US$105 million trial was sponsored and paid for by the US government and results showed it cut the risk of infection by 31.2 percent among 16,402 volunteers over three years.

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