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South Africa launches major HIV vaccine trial

South Africa has launched a major HIV vaccine trial to determine if an experimental vaccine safely prevents HIV infection among South African adults. PHOTO: Supplied

South Africa has launched a major HIV vaccine trial to determine if an experimental vaccine safely prevents HIV infection among South African adults. PHOTO: Supplied

South Africa has launched a major HIV vaccine trial called HVTN 702 to determine if an experimental vaccine safely prevents HIV infection among South African adults on 30 November. The study is underway at 15 research centres in South Africa with the aim to enrol 5400 men and women volunteers.

Professor Glenda Gray, HVTN 702 protocol chairperson and CEO of the Medical Research Council of South Africa says it is the largest and most advanced HIV vaccine clinical trial to take place in South Africa. She says it involves a new version of the only HIV vaccine candidate yet shown to provide some protection against the virus.

“The experimental vaccine regimen being tested in HVTN 702 is based on the one investigated in the RV144 clinical trial in Thailand led by the US Military HIV Research Program and the Thai Ministry of Health. The HVTN 702 vaccine regimen consists of two experimental vaccines ALVAC-HIV and a protein subunit vaccine from versions used in RV144 specific to HIV subtype C, the predominant subtype of HIV in southern Africa,” says the professor.

According to Prof Gray, the protein subunit vaccine in HVTN 702 is combined with MF59, a different adjuvant than the one used in RV144 in the hope of generating a more robust immune response. She says HVTN 702 vaccine regimen includes booster shots at the one-year mark to prolong the early protective effect observed in RV144.

“HIV has taken a devastating toll in South Africa and we are still seeing about 1000 new infections every day but we now begin a scientific exploration that could hold great promise for our country. If an HIV vaccine were found to work in South Africa, it could dramatically alter the course of the epidemic,” says Professor Gray.

Anthony Fauci, director at the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says if deployed alongside our current armory of proven HIV prevention tools, a safe and effective vaccine could be the final nail in the coffin for HIV. He says even a moderately effective vaccine would decrease the burden of HIV disease over time in countries and populations with high rates of HIV infection such as South Africa.

Dr Larry Corey, principal investigator at the HIV Vaccine Trials Network says this launch represents a significant HIV prevention milestone. He says this study will provide important insights into vaccine development to help prevent new infections and end the epidemic

“The 5400 study volunteers are being randomly assigned to receive either the investigational vaccine regimen or a placebo. All study participants will receive injections on five occasions over the course of one year,” says the doctor.

Dr Larry Corey says the safety of HVTN 702 study participants will be closely monitored throughout the trial and participants will be offered established methods for preventing HIV infection. He says the vaccines do not contain whole HIV and therefore should not pose any danger of HIV infection to study participants.

Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy president of South Africa, says South Africa is facing an HIV infection emergency with an estimated 266 000 South Africans becoming infected with HIV last year. He says he welcomes the groundbreaking new HIV vaccine trial that launched in the country and applauds the South African scientists leading this critical research.

“Let us continue to lay the foundations for an AIDS-free generation. Let us pledge to improve the quality of life of all that are affected and infected with HIV. It is in our hands to end AIDS and TB. We are hopeful that new approaches currently under exploration could expedite the end of the HIV/AIDS pandemic,” he says.

The new trial is being carried out by the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the South African Medical Research Council (MRC), Sanofi Pasteur, GlaxoSmithKline and the HIV Vaccine Trials Network. Results are expected in late 2020.