Major HIV-Vaccine Trial Set to Begin in South Africa

Angela Bronner Helm
A nurse takes a blood sample on March 8, 2011, in a mobile clinic set up to test students for HIV at Madwaleni High School near Mtubatuba in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa.

In a promising nod to World AIDS Day, which is Thursday, South African health officials will begin a new HIV vaccine trial Monday, the Washington Post reports.

South Africa has been especially hard hit by HIV and AIDS. Nearly 20 percent of the population, or 7 million people, is infected, and in some parts of the country, such as in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, estimates place the number of HIV-positive people at nearly 30 percent.


The Post reports that this trial is only the seventh full-scale human trial for a virus that kills more than 1 million people every year.

There is a desperate need for vaccine trials, but they have a long history of failure, are difficult to design, and are large, complicated and expensive, notes the Post. Should the vaccine prove to be even 50 percent effective, that would be sufficient for drugmakers to begin licensing negotiations with the South African government.

The Post notes that about 5,400 people—who must be HIV-negative, sexually active, and between the ages of 18 and 35—are being recruited for the trial. Each will receive five injections over the course of the year and then be monitored for two years. Half the volunteers will receive a placebo.

HIV and AIDS have wreaked havoc, especially on black South Africa, where hardly anyone has remained untouched. The virus still carries with it a stigma, so those infected sometimes waste away in isolation.


One 29-year-old South African woman, Thembi Dlamini, estimates that half her friends are HIV-positive. “I don’t want to lose another member of my family,” Dlamini said. “I want to be one of the ones who helped prevent this thing for the future.”

In 2007 South Africa was one site of a second phase of testing for an HIV vaccine, but it had to be shuttered when early results showed that the vaccine seemed to be making people more susceptible to HIV than the placebo.


Results from the new study are not expected until 2020, though the test could be ended earlier if it shows spectacular results or unexpected problems. Researchers remain cautiously optimistic.

“If we knew we were going to be successful, we wouldn’t have to do the experiment, but we do believe this approach has great promise,” said Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council, who is leading the trial.


“We’ve grown used to being wrong because of all the failures we’ve had in the HIV field, and I think all of us are quite pragmatic,” Gray continued, “but we’re still excited.”

The Post reports that an agent that works in South Africa could be adjusted later for use against other viral subtypes, including those found in the United States.


Read more at the Washington Post.

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