AN HIV vaccine efficacy study to determine whether a virus can be prevented from being transmitted from an infected to the uninfected person was launched at the SA Medical Research Council (MRC) in Verulam on 30 November. The study - HVTN 702 - is under way in several South African research centres and aims to establish whether an experimental vaccine regimen prevents HIV infection in South African adults. MRC CEO Professor Glenda Gray said in a statement: “HIV has taken a devastating toll in South Africa and we are still seeing about 1 000 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.” The experimental vaccine regimen is based on the investigated clinical trial in Thailand led by a U.S. Military HIV Research Programme and the Thai Ministry of Health. According to the report, the trial in Thailand delivered landmark results in 2009 and the experimental vaccine regimen it tested was found to be 31.2% effective in preventing HIV infection over the 3.5-year follow-up period after vaccination. Principal investigator at the HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN) Doctor Larry Corey said in a statement: “This launch represents a significant HIV prevention milestone. In earlier studies, this vaccine regimen improved on many of the antibody responses to the types of HIV strains circulating in South Africa, providing us the scientific basis to conduct this pivotal trial. “This study will provide important insights into vaccine development to help prevent new infections and end the epidemic.” The study is conducted at 15 research centres in South Africa and its protocol co-chairs are all local researchers - Professor Linda-Gail Bekker of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre at the University of Cape Town, Doctor Fatima Laher of the Perinatal HIV Research Unit at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital and Doctor Mookho Malahleha of Setshaba Research centre in Soshanguve.Media liaison officer for Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) Mary-Jane Matsholo told the Weekly: “The TAC welcomes and appreciates the vaccine initiative, however it is still early to give further comments as far as this matter is concerned. We will be waiting upon the results and as soon as they come out, we will give further comment.” The report said that 5 400 volunteers are being randomly assigned to receive either the investigational vaccine regimen or (substance that has no therapeutic effect, used as a control in testing new drugs) placebo. Volunteers taking part in the study go for HIV blood tests before being administered with the vaccine.The MRC said in a statement: “All study participants will receive injections on five occasions over the course of one year. The safety of the HVTN 702 study participants will be closely monitored throughout the trial, and participants will be offered established methods for preventing HIV infection. “The vaccines do not contain whole HIV and therefore do not pose any danger of HIV infection to study participants. Despite these precautions some study participants will become infected in a similar manner to other members of the community.” Institutions funding the trial are the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the South African Medical Research Council. According to the report, HVTN 702 started a few months after the interim results were reported for HVTN 100, another study, which found that the new vaccine regimen was safe for the 252 study participants. The programme of clinical studies on this regimen in South Africa is known as Uhambo, which means “journey”.