HIV has a new EN­EMY

A group of South Africans are em­bark­ing on a jour­ney that might help to end the HIV/Aids en­demic. But they still have a long way, say re­searchers

CityPress - - Front Page - ZINHLE MAPUMULO zinhle.mapumulo@city­press.co.za

Meet Ju­dith Le­bambo*. She is one of a brave group of male and fe­male vol­un­teers pre­pared to en­ter great risks by test­ing the ef­fi­cacy of the first HIV vac­cine de­signed to stop a strain of HIV which is dom­i­nant in south­ern Africa. Le­bambo is 21 years old but looks much younger. When asked if she was re­ally a young adult, she jok­ingly an­swered: “Don’t you know dy­na­mite comes in small pack­ages?”

Le­bambo, from Soshanguve, north­ern Pre­to­ria, is one of 5 400 peo­ple who are HIV neg­a­tive and be­tween the ages of 18 and 35, who will be par­tic­i­pat­ing in the HVTN702 HIV vac­cine trial.

The trial, which be­gan on Oc­to­ber 26, aims to de­ter­mine if an HIV vac­cine reg­i­men is safe, tol­er­a­ble and ef­fec­tive in the long run in pre­vent­ing HIV in­fec­tion among South African adults.

“The avail­abil­ity of an ef­fec­tive HIV vac­cine will help end the epi­demic be­cause the num­ber of peo­ple in­fected with HIV will be re­duced.

“In fu­ture, when peo­ple look back to when an ef­fec­tive vac­cine was found, I want to be counted as one of those peo­ple who tested it,” says Le­bambo.

At least 15 sites in five prov­inces – Gaut­eng, KwaZulu-Natal, North West, Western Cape and East­ern Cape – have been iden­ti­fied to con­duct the vac­cine trial. Set­shaba Re­search Cen­tre in Soshanguve, where Le­bambo is en­rolled, is one of the sites where the his­toric re­search is be­ing con­ducted. She told City Press that she was ex­cited to take part in the study. “It’s go­ing to be an in­ter­est­ing three years for me, but I am look­ing for­ward to each and ev­ery mo­ment. I am not scared be­cause I know that the vac­cine does not con­tain a real HI virus,” she said.

The vac­cine does not con­tain a live virus, but a lab­o­ra­tory cre­ated mol­e­cule that looks and func­tions ex­actly like the HI virus.

Af­ter weeks of un­der­go­ing coun­selling, Le­bambo is ready to be­gin the trial. She will re­ceive her first of five vac­ci­na­tions next week.

All par­tic­i­pants will re­ceive five in­jec­tions over a pe­riod of one year and then they will be mon­i­tored for an­other two years to ob­serve the dura­bil­ity of the vac­cine.

The trial is dou­ble ran­domised, mean­ing that half of the par­tic­i­pants will re­ceive a vac­cine and the other half a placebo (ster­ile wa­ter).

The par­tic­i­pa­tion of dif­fer­ent groups would al­low the re­searchers to de­ter­mine any ef­fects of the treat­ment when com­pared with the notreat­ment (con­trol) group, while other vari­ables are kept con­stant.

Le­bambo, who is in a re­la­tion­ship and is sex­u­ally ac­tive, was con­vinced by her friend – also a par­tic­i­pant in this study – to take part in the HVTN702 trial.

She said it took lit­tle ef­fort for her friend to per­suade her be­cause she knew many peo­ple who have died of Aids. Some were close to her and oth­ers were in­di­vid­u­als she had known from the com­mu­nity.

“HIV is a big prob­lem, not just in my com­mu­nity, but in [the whole of] South Africa as well,” she com­mented.

The lat­est statis­tics from UNAids showed that 7 mil­lion peo­ple in South Africa last year lived with the virus. About 180 000 of those had died of Aids-re­lated ill­nesses, while 380 000 peo­ple have been newly in­fected.

How­ever, a vac­cine will take years from now be­fore it could be­come avail­able. Re­sults from the HVTN702 trial were ex­pected at the end of 2020, said re­searcher Pro­fes­sor Glenda Gray on Wed­nes­day, when the HVTN702 was of­fi­cially launched.

“This is be­cause we are not only test­ing safety, tol­er­a­bil­ity and ef­fec­tive­ness, but also the dura­bil­ity of the HIV vac­cine. We have to know how long the vac­cine in­duces an im­mune re­sponse in a per­son,” she ex­plained.

The HIV vac­cine cur­rently be­ing tested had shown great im­mune re­sponse when tested in ear­lier stud­ies, called HVTN097 and HVTN100.

Both ear­lier tri­als had sought to eval­u­ate whether the RV144 HIV vac­cine reg­i­men con­ducted in Thai­land would in­duce sim­i­lar im­mune re­sponse in South Africans.

The trial showed that the vac­cine reg­i­men was safe and mod­estly ef­fec­tive in pre­vent­ing HIV in­fec­tion. The re­sults also showed that it re­duced HIV in­fec­tion by 31.2%.

Speak­ing to City Press on Thurs­day, Khatija Ahmed, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Set­shaba Re­search Cen­tre, said re­searchers were hop­ing to sur­pass the re­sult of the RV144 trial, that had had a lim­ited suc­cess rate.

She said: “There are vast amounts of HIV pre­ven­tion meth­ods in South Africa, but it is clear that ad­di­tional tools are re­quired to re­duce in­fec­tion rates.

“With great hope and an­tic­i­pa­tion, we are launch­ing the big­gest HIV vac­cine trial in seven years. For us, this rep­re­sents the jour­ney of the be­gin­ning of hope,” Ahmed said. *Ju­dith Le­bambo is not her real name. She agreed to have her pic­ture pub­lished

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PHOTO: ZINHLE MAPUMULO

PIONEER Ju­dith Le­bambo*, one of the par­tic­i­pants in the HIV vac­cine trial that was of­fi­cially launched on Wed­nes­day

SIX OF THE BEST The panel of re­searchers who will con­duct the HIV vac­cine trial. The HVTN702 HIV vac­cine trial was of­fi­cially launched on Wed­nes­day at Set­shaba Re­search Cen­tre in Soshanguve, Pre­to­ria

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