New HIV Vaccine Trials Begin In East Africa

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - Researchers in East Africa are hopeful that a series of HIV vaccine clinical trials currently being conducted here eventually may offer good news for millions of Africans at risk of infection with the AIDS virus.

After delays for approval and review, Uganda last week announced that it has started vaccine trials on human volunteers specifically targeting the HIV sub-type A, a strain of virus common in East Africa.

The trials are being sponsored by the New York-based International Aids Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and if successful, the vaccine could be administered in two years' time, said Dr. Pontiano Kaleebu of the Uganda Virus Research Institute.

In a separate Kenyan-British initiative, similar trials started two years ago in Kenya and are now in their second phase.

And neighboring Tanzania early this month started its own trials, involving 60 volunteers from Tanzania's armed forces, and 40 from Sweden.

Kaleebu said the trials in Uganda had shown relative success in mice, which were able to build up immunity to the virus. This did not guarantee success in human beings, however, he cautioned.

According to the IAVI, the process involves the use of synthetic copies of a subset of the HIV virus' genes and proteins. The idea is for the virus to mimic exposure, prompting the body's immune system to build up immunity to a real HIV infection.

Critical elements of HIV are left out, so there is no risk of causing infection in the volunteers, all of whom are individuals who are free of infection.

The vaccine would need to achieve a 50-percent immunity build-up in human beings to be considered successful.

Mary Wambui of the Kenya Aids and Drugs Alliance, a non-governmental organization, welcomed news of continued work on a vaccine, expressing optimism that one would eventually be developed and help stop the spread of the pandemic.

She cautioned, however, that the vaccine search should not come at the expense of the continuing daily needs of those who are already sick.

"Our immediate needs are drugs that will assist HIV patients manage their infections," Wambui said.

An HIV-positive mother of three, who did not want her name used, said she only wished the vaccine trials could take a shorter time than the current average of five years.

Nonetheless, she said, "it's a welcome initiative because eventually a vaccine may be found and help save millions of lives."

Vaccine trials are part of a broader strategy to reduce AIDS infection in Africa, where the pandemic is the now the leading cause of death and has left at least 11 million orphans across the continent.

A recent pledge by President Bush of a five-year, $15 billion Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief is expected to complement these efforts.

The White House says the funds are expected to prevent seven million new infections -- or 60 percent of the projected new infections in targeted countries -- through large-scale prevention efforts, including voluntary testing and counseling.

The program will also treat two million HIV-infected people and offer care for 10 million HIV-infected people and AIDS orphans.

AIDS activists in Africa welcomed the pledge but some expressed concern that without effective distribution mechanisms in place, the money could be diverted by officials to unrelated areas.

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