The United States' National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) is preparing for the launch of a HIV vaccine trial in South Africa on Wednesday, Associated Press reports. According to the NIAID, this is the first HIV vaccine efficacy study in seven years and will be testing "whether an experimental vaccine regimen safely prevents HIV infection among South African adults".
The study, called HVTN 702, will involve a new version of the only HIV vaccine to have shown some protection against the virus, says NIAID. Researchers will enroll 5,400 sexually active men and women between the ages of 18 and 35 — the "largest and most advanced HIV vaccine clinical trial to take place in South Africa," says NIAID.
In a release, NIAID director Anthony Fauci said that an effective vaccine could be the "final nail in the coffin for HIV" if it is used in conjunction with the "current armory of proven HIV prevention tools". According to UNAIDS 2015 HIV/Aids estimates, more than seven million South Africans are living with HIV, giving South Africa the biggest and most high profile HIV epidemic in the world. "Even a moderately effective vaccine would significantly decrease the burden of HIV disease over time in countries and populations with high rates of HIV infection, such as South Africa," Fauci said.
The vaccine being tested in HVTN 702 is based on a 2009 trial in Thailand, that was found to be 31.2 percent effective at preventing HIV infection over the 3.5 years of follow-up after the vaccination. The new vaccine aims to provide greater and more sustained protection and has been adapted to the HIV subtype that predominates in southern Africa.
"The people of South Africa are making history by conducting and participating in the first HIV vaccine efficacy study to build on the results of the Thai trial," said HVTN 702 Protocol chair Glenda Gray, who is also the president and CEO of the South African Medical Research Council. "HIV has taken a devastating toll in South Africa, but now we 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 pandemic," she said in a statement from the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
Volunteers for the study, funded by NIAID, are being randomly assigned to receive either the vaccine regimen or a placebo. All participants will receive five injections over a year. According to NIAID, the vaccines do not contain HIV and therefore do not pose any danger of HIV infection to study participants. "The safety of HVTN 702 study participants will be closely monitored throughout the trial, and participants will be offered the standard of care for preventing HIV infection. Study participants who become infected with HIV in the community will be referred to local medical providers for care and treatment and will be counselled on how to reduce their risk of transmitting the virus."
Despite the prevalence of the virus, the South African government's mass rollout of antiretroviral treatment for HIV has lead to an increased life expectancy from 57.1 years in 2009 to 62.9 years in 2014, Associated Press reports. Results of the vaccine study are expected in late 2020.