SA tests Aids vaccine

2009-07-20 07:12

Cape Town - South Africa is launching clinical trials of two Aids vaccines its researchers developed in collaboration with US experts, a major step for a developing country where political leaders once shocked the world with their unscientific pronouncements about the disease.

Trials to test the safety in humans of the vaccines begin this month on 36 healthy volunteers, Anthony Mbewu, president of the government-supported Medical Research Council, said in an interview on Sunday. Mbewu's respected organisation shepherded the project.

A trial of 12 volunteers in the United States began earlier this year.

Mbewu said the vaccine was designed at the University of Cape Town with technical help from the US National Institutes of Health, which also manufactured the vaccine.

Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and a leading Aids researcher, was in South Africa for the launch.

Aids denial and neglect

During nearly 10 years of denial and neglect, South Africa developed a staggering Aids crisis. Around 5.2 million South Africans were living with HIV last year - the highest number of any country in the world. Young women are hardest hit, with one-third of those aged 20 to 34 infected with the virus.

In 1999, the ministries of health and of science and technology founded the vaccine initiative and poured R250m into it over nearly 10 years.

Some 250 scientists and technicians worked on the project, along the way gaining scores of doctorates and producing work for professional publications as well as a model for continued biotechnology development in South Africa.

The government decided it was important to develop a vaccine specifically for the HIV subtype C strain that is prevalent in southern Africa "and to ensure that once developed, it would be available at an affordable price," Mbewu said.

"We have the biggest problem" in the world, Mbewu said on the sidelines of an international Aids conference in Cape Town.

"Every emerging country is trying, wants to develop their own capacity to design and develop vaccines - Brazil, Korea," Mbewu said.

Years of testing

But the South Africans are the first to reach the clinical trial stage, though years of testing will be needed.

The field of Aids vaccine research is so filled with disappointments that some activists are questioning the wisdom of continuing such expensive investments, saying the money might be better spent on prevention and education.

Mbewu said the crisis in South Africa more than justifies the expenditure.

"With 5.2 million already infected and with hundreds getting infected every day despite all the condom distribution and behavioural education programmes, we know that a vaccine really is what we need," he said.

Other benefits

And he said there are many other benefits. The cadre of South African scientists now able to develop complex technological vaccines for HIV can use that same expertise to fight tuberculosis and avian flu.

"When the next influenza pandemic hits the world, every country will be scrambling to develop a vaccine ... so it is important that countries like South Africa have the technology and capacity to develop vaccines and the industry to manufacture them," Mbewu said.

In the 1990s, former president Thabo Mbeki denied the link between HIV and Aids, and his health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, mistrusted conventional anti-Aids drugs and made the country a laughing stock trying to promote beets and lemon as Aids remedies.