For the first time a vaccine project is underway to reduce the risk of infection. The relative success of a test in Thailand has raised hopes on the possibility of an effective vaccine to fight the HIV virus in the future. In July this year, the first phase of testing from a South African vaccine research was also launched, marking the country’s second time to test an HIV vaccine. The Thai test results, according to experts, augur well for the South African trials.
All hope seemed lost for the science community. They doubted the possibility of ever finding a vaccine against AIDS, after the unexplained failure of a Merck vaccine testing in 2007. Last year, Roche had even announced that they would only concentrate their efforts on existing treatments. The results of a study conducted in Thailand, presented Thursday, have partly reassured researchers. The tests succeeded in reducing the risk of infection by almost one third.
Laura Darcel, communications officer for the U.S. Army, in charge of the project alongside the Thai Ministry of Health, does not want to raise false hopes. Meanwhile a UN report has indicated that the HIV virus, since its discovery in the 1980s, has killed 25 million people, further revealing that it will take “many years of research” before a vaccine is found. The UN’s announcement defies another statement made by Robert Gallo, a renowned American researcher, in the journal Midi Libre on Tuesday. He expressed his belief in the possibility of the discovery of a vaccine in the next “6 to 10 years”. Gallo is involved in one of 18 other vaccine research projects primarily funded by the Bill Gates Foundation.
A combination of two vaccines
For the first time since the discovery of the virus, scientists have statistical evidence of the effectiveness of a preventive vaccine. The WHO and UNAIDS are cautiously pleased with the results of the three-year study, conducted in Thailand. 16 000 HIV negative persons aged between18 and 30 years, were divided into two test groups. The first received a dose of vaccine every six months. The second was injected with a placebo at the same time interval. At the end of the experiment, the vaccinated group registered 31.1% less HIV positive cases vis-à-vis the placebo group, that is 51 infections in the first group against 74 in the second.
The treatment is a combination of two vaccines, whose individual trials had failed. The volunteers were administered a total of four doses of ALVAC (Sanofi Pasteur), supposed to trigger immune reactions, and two doses of AIDSVAX (VaxGen), intended to strengthen them. The rather intuitive combination of the two drugs has proved, despite a modest effect yet, good.
The research team’s main worry is that the vaccine has no effect on the level of HIV in the blood. The drugs effect is only preventive, for now. Another worrying issue is the transferability of the vaccine outside of Asia, particularly in what concerns the African strain of the virus. Despite the headway made so far in the search for a vaccine against HIV/AIDS, questions remain over plunging funds from the international community. The volume of international funding for research fell from $ 930 million in 2007 to 870 million in 2008.
South African tests
July this year, South African Council for Medical Research (South African Medical Research Council – MRC) launched of Phase I of the first testing from a South African vaccine research to ascertain that the vaccine is safe for human use and also to measure the level of response from the immune system. The HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN) in collaboration with the South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative (SAAVI) from the MRC was to conduct the testing.
The current testing marks the second time South Africa is testing an HIV vaccine. During the first tests MRKAd5 HIV-1 gag / pol / nef, a drug developed by U.S. pharmaceutical firm Merck & Co. Inc., was used. If successful, it will be followed by Phases II and III which will lead, hopefully, to the certification and manufacture of a vaccine directed against the scourge of the century.
In the meantimes, experts have said that positive results from the Thai trial would augur well for the South African vaccine due to the similarities in both method and drugs used. This South African challenge, if achieved, will be attributed to Africa, a continent widely accused as being the author of HIV.