While the most promising AIDS vaccine trial ever took place in Thailand, Africa is playing a major role in AIDS vaccine research. The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) works in partnership with African countries in researching the virus which has infected tens of millions of people on the continent.
“The benefits for Africa are immense,” says Gwynneth Stevens, director of the initiative’s Clinical Laboratory Program for research and development in South Africa, “Today, IAVI supports and operates 11sophisticated clinical trial facilities in collaboration with local scientists and institutions in five countries in Africa. So currently, the countries make a huge contribution to the data that is generated.”
The five countries are Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Rwanda and Zambia.
Stevens adds that the sites generate valuable information on HIV prevalence and incidence, immunology and safety, as well as on the development of disease.
Do or die
The only real way to stop the AIDS epidemic is by developing a vaccine, Stevens says. There is no cure. While anti-retroviral drugs prolong lives, they still fail to rid the body completely of HIV.
She says while working toward that goal, IAVI is strengthening local and national health care systems:
“While we’re en route to the development of a vaccine, there are huge contributions that NGOs like ourselves, make to Africa. For example, capacity building.”
She points to state of the art laboratories which have improved the standard of health care in those regions, both by being available and by facilitating support for the clinical trials.
Scientists don’t know when a successful AIDS vaccine might be found. However, Stevens points to the encouraging results of a trial conducted in Thailand last year in which almost a third of those participating were protected against HIV infection:
“While we can’t pinpoint the exact day and time I think the scientific breakthroughs over the last 18 months have really showed us that scientifically, the development of a preventative HIV vaccine is possible.”
Trials in phases
The trials are conducted in three phases. The Thailand trial was a third phase experiment. Follow-up trials are planned, but the first one is a long way off. It’s not expected to begin until 2014.
None of the vaccine candidates being studied in Africa have gotten that far. However, there are a number of promising candidates that will undergo further testing at the end of this year or in 2011. If they’re successful, they could go to the last stage of testing – phase three trials – by 2014.