SA launches ma­jor Aids vac­cine clin­i­cal trial

Chronicle (Zimbabwe) - - Worldwide -

SOUTH Africa has launched a ma­jor clin­i­cal trial of an ex­per­i­men­tal vac­cine against the Aids virus, which sci­en­tists hope could be the “fi­nal nail in the cof­fin” for the dis­ease.

More than 30 years of ef­forts to de­velop an ef­fec­tive vac­cine for HIV have not borne fruit, but for the first time since the virus was iden­ti­fied in 1983, sci­en­tists said on Wed­nes­day they think they have found a promis­ing can­di­date.

The new study, known as HVTN 702, will in­volve more than 5 400 sex­u­ally ac­tive men and women aged 18-35 in 15 ar­eas around South Africa over four years.

It is one of the big­gest clin­i­cal tri­als in­volv­ing the dis­ease ever un­der­taken and has re­vived hopes of a break­through in the bat­tle against Aids.

“If de­ployed along­side our cur­rent ar­moury of proven HIV pre­ven­tion tools, a safe and ef­fec­tive vac­cine could be the fi­nal nail in the cof­fin for HIV,” said An­thony Fauci, direc­tor of the US Na­tional in­sti­tute for Al­ler­gies and In­fec­tious Dis­eases (NIAID), which is tak­ing part in the study.

“Even a mod­er­ately ef­fec­tive vac­cine would sig­nif­i­cantly de­crease the bur­den of HIV dis­ease over time in coun­tries and pop­u­la­tions with high rates of HIV in­fec­tion, such as South Africa.”

Con­doms are at the front­line of ef­forts to pre­vent the spread of HIV, which is mainly trans­ferred through the sex­ual flu­ids and blood of in­fected in­di­vid­u­als.

A small num­ber of peo­ple, mainly in de­vel­oped coun­tries, use virus-sup­press­ing drugs as a preven­tive aid, although the ex­act level of pro­tec­tion this of­fers is not clear. But re­ly­ing on ex­ist­ing pre­ven­tion meth­ods was not work­ing, said Mma­pule Ra­borife, one of HIV Vac­cine Tri­als Net­work’s com­mu­nity ad­vi­sors in the large town­ship of Soshanguve, north of the ad­min­is­tra­tive cap­i­tal Pre­to­ria.

“There are con­doms every­where in South Africa but peo­ple are just pass­ing by as if there is noth­ing there,” she told AFP news agency.

South Africa was not cho­sen by ac­ci­dent. The coun­try has one of the high­est rates of HIV in­fec­tion in the world — 19.2 per­cent ac­cord­ing to the UN Aids agency — with more than seven mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing with the virus.

“A vac­cine is crit­i­cal for South Africa,” said Glenda Gray, pres­i­dent of the coun­try’s Med­i­cal Re­search Coun­cil. “Ev­ery day, 1 000 peo­ple are get­ting in­fected and most of them are young women and men so we need to find a so­lu­tion.”

There has been a 35 per­cent re­duc­tion in new Aids in­fec­tions since 2000

The vac­cine has been adapted for the HIV strain preva­lent in south­ern Africa from one used in a trial of 16 000 peo­ple in Thai­land in 2009, which re­duced the risk of in­fec­tion by more than 30 per­cent for three­and-a-half years af­ter the first jab.

The safety of the vac­cine has al­ready been tested suc­cess­fully over 18 months on 252 vol­un­teers. The new study aims to test its ef­fec­tive­ness as a virus-kil­ler.

Vac­cines work by prim­ing the body to re­spond with germ-fight­ing an­ti­bod­ies when­ever a virus or bac­te­ria in­vades. But the Aids-caus­ing virus is stealthy and quick to mu­tate to avoid be­ing tar­geted.

“If we have a 50 per­cent ef­fi­cacy rate, we would con­sider this an ef­fec­tive vac­cine,” said Gray.

From there, it could take five to 10 years to scale up pro­duc­tion, “and we need money to take [it] to a world level”, she added.

Even if the new vac­cine proves ef­fec­tive, ex­perts warn it is vi­tal to re­main vig­i­lant in the fight against HIV.

“A highly ef­fi­cient vac­cine would be a game-changer but the re­sults of these tri­als will take years,” Lynn Mor­ris, head of the HIV vi­rol­ogy section at South Africa’s Na­tional In­sti­tute for Com­mu­ni­ca­ble Dis­eases (NICD), told AFP. “We must con­tinue to use other HIV pre­ven­tion tools to re­duce the num­ber of new HIV in­fec­tions, par­tic­u­larly in vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions such as young women.”

Ac­cord­ing to UNAids, half of the 36 mil­lion or so peo­ple with HIV around the world have ac­cess to an­tiretro­vi­ral drugs (ARVs), a fig­ure that has dou­bled in five years.

Thanks to these treat­ments, which keep the virus in check and in­crease the life­span of HIV-pos­i­tive peo­ple with­out cur­ing them, av­er­age life ex­pectancy in South Africa has risen from 57.1 years to 62.9 since 2009.

“I know peo­ple who are HIV pos­i­tive and I know peo­ple who died be­cause of HIV — some of them are in my fam­ily,” one trial par­tic­i­pant who de­clined to give her name.

“I want to make a dif­fer­ence in my com­mu­nity and in my coun­try . . . There’s no cure yet, so we have to keep fight­ing.” — AFP

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