Although the government and researchers halted most clinical trials for an AIDS vaccine, a research institute in Baltimore continues its work on the most deadly virus of our times. Vaccine trials were stopped late last year when it appeared the drug put some people at a higher risk of getting the disease. Scientists at the Institute for Human Virology are hard at work developing a new vaccine. VOA producer Zulima Palacio has the story, beginning with a scientist in the institute's lab.
Scientist Alfredo Garzino says, "In this laboratory we are interested in the study of host responses to HIV infection that can limit and potentially prevent infection."
Garzino a research professor at The Institute of Human Virology in Baltimore continues laboratory work on HIV/AIDS.
After most human trials of potential AIDS vaccines were halted, the co-founder of the institute says he had opposed that human testing. Dr. Robert Gallo says none of the test vaccines were ready, "We have been too quick to do clinical trials and too slow to have focus efforts to get answers to critically needed questions before we can have a successful vaccine."
Dr. Gallo adds that the temptation to just try something has led to testing new vaccines that most scientists felt very strongly could not work.
"This has hurt the field there is no doubt about it. It has made some people want to stop funding vaccine research and it would be a big mistake," Dr. Gallo said.
In 1984, Dr. Gallo co-discovered the retrovirus that causes AIDS. He later developed the blood test to screen donated blood and diagnosed HIV in early stages. Dr. Gallo says his research on an AIDS vaccine continues and it could be ready for trials in one to two years. If it works, he says, it will take years before it could be available to the public, "I think it could happen in some 8 to 12 years."
Meanwhile, Dr. Gallo says the institute will continue all its research on HIV/AIDS. Nearly 40-million people are still living with the disease. The Institute is testing, coaching and counseling about 200,000 people in Africa and the Caribbean.
In Baltimore, the institute's home, thousands are treated daily. Judith Shaw-McKnight was infected 17 years ago. She says, "My partner, I trusted him. I received him unprotected and I sit positive before you today."
Judith's partner for two decades and the father of her only daughter died of AIDS years ago, leaving her alone and infected. She says after a long, difficult time she sought help and found it. She now works as a receptionist at the Baltimore AIDS Clinic, a part of the institute, where nearly 4,000 HIV/AIDS patients get treatment.
Besides being HIV positive, Shaw-McKnight has also survived breast cancer. She says she started taking AIDS medications when she felt sick. But the daily medication has side effects. "When you start on anti viral drugs you have to take them the way they are supposed to be taken and you have to take them every day,” she said. “We are talking about something you are going to be taking for the rest of your life."
Like Judith, millions of people around the world are now depending on a daily treatment, until a more permanent solution is found. And still, the World Bank reports in Sub-Saharan Africa, there are six new HIV cases for every one person who starts antiretroviral therapy.