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South Africa Begins Clinical Trials of Potential AIDS Vaccine - 2003-11-03

Several South African scientists say they are starting the country's first clinical trial of a potential AIDS vaccine. The first volunteers will be inoculated this week.

The South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative (SAAVI) says there are 48 volunteers taking part in the country's first clinical trial. Half of them are in the United States, where the serum was developed, and half of them are in South Africa.

The South African volunteers will come either from the coastal city of Durban, or from the township of Soweto, near Johannesburg. Those areas have among the highest HIV infection rates in South Africa which, in turn, has one of the highest infection rates in the world.

Another clinical trial will start within a few weeks, and a third in January. Each one is testing a different vaccine candidate in the hopes that one of them might work.

SAAVI director Tim Tucker said the point of running multiple tests is to identify promising candidates as quickly as possible. "It is an incredibly exciting time. An HIV vaccine is our best hope to eradicate HIV from the globe," he said.

Each of the studies is classified as a phase-one clinical trial, which is the earliest stage of vaccine research. Researchers are trying to make sure that the drugs are safe for humans to use, not find out if they actually prevent HIV infection. That stage will come later.

Doctor Glenda Gray is leading the research team in the first study. She said it is still far too early to tell, which vaccine candidates are the most promising. "Vaccine trials are a long process. We are at the beginning of a long process -- we are in kindergarten now, and we want to get to university. And so, we are looking at a 10-year process before we know, which is the most effective vaccine to take into the general population," she said.

The researchers say a key issue is making sure the volunteers and their communities understand what the trial is all about. They are using local community advisory boards to help them communicate with and educate the communities where they are testing the drugs.

In the Soweto trial, 69-year-old nurse and grandmother Winnie Serobe is on the advisory board. She says there is huge support for the vaccine initiative in her community, mainly because so many young people are dying of AIDS, leaving grandmothers like her to care for the growing number of orphans.

She said the people of Soweto want a vaccine now. "It is important for the community to know that there are trials, there are volunteers and this has got to be tried first. It is going to be tried for safety. But the community is saying, please let this vaccine come to everybody. It is because of the number of deaths that we have, not just in Soweto but in the country," she said.

The South African vaccine trials are not the first to be conducted in Africa, and not the most advanced. But the one beginning this week is the first in the world to target the C-strain of the virus, which is the form of HIV most widely found in southern Africa.