History is being made in South Africa as a trial using the only vaccine in the world proven to offer some protection against HIV gets underway.
Nkosiyazi Mncube, 23, was one of the first people to be vaccinated in Verulam outside Durban on Wednesday, while 20-year-old Awethu Benenengu from Browns Farm in Cape Town expects to be injected on Thursday morning.
Mncube, sporting a T-shirt with a big white tiger, looked nervous and winced slightly as he was injected but said afterwards that he was “excited” to be part of history.
The HIV vaccine trial – known as HVTN702 – aims to have 5 400 people enrolled at 15 trial sites countrywide.
The vaccine is a modified version of a Thai vaccine that offered 31% protection to trial participants, and it is the only vaccine that has had any effect on HIV.
Scientists have been working for seven years to test the vaccine in a country with a high HIV rate to see whether it is robust enough to hold out, as HIV is not that prevalent in Thailand.
Half the trial participants will get the vaccine and the other half will get a placebo, but neither the scientists nor the participants will know who is getting the vaccine.
“Today is a day of hope, as we launch the HVTN702 trial of the vaccine that builds on the RV144 trial in Thailand,” said Dr Carl Dieffenbach, Director of the Division of AIDS at the US National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
The NIAID is the sponsor of the trial, which Dieffenbach estimates will cost around R1.68bn ($120m).
The Thai vaccine was comprised of one vaccine aimed at priming the body to recognise the HI virus and a second vaccine given four times over six months aimed at boosting the immune system to fight HIV.
The Thai vaccine was shown to offer 30% protection after three years, which is very modest. But protection of around 60% was recorded after a year.
Professor Linda-Gail Bekker, director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre which runs Emavundleni, said the Thai vaccine had been modified for South Africa.
“We have changed the virus insert so that it contains the version of HIV most commonly found in South Africa [clade C] and enhanced the booster vaccine to make it more durable,” said Bekker. “We are also adding a final booster shot at 12 months.”
Dieffenbach said the vaccine would need to offer over 50% protection for it to be a viable product.
The modified virus has already been tested on a small group of South Africans and found to be safe, as well as having an effect on the volunteers’ immune systems.
Launa Jack, who took part in the safety trial, said she did so “because I am a helpful person, I want this trial to be a success”.
Jack, who went through two years of vaccinations and tests, said that she was still HIV negative.
“Some of my friends were worried that I could get HIV from the vaccine but I know that I am not being injected with HIV,” said the 21-year-old public relations student.
Results from the trial are only expected in 2021, according to Dr Danielle Crida, principal investigator at the Emavendleni Clinical Research Centre in Cape Town’s New Crossroads.
Volunteers have to have HIV and pregnancy tests a well as other laboratory tests, before they can be enrolled. Once volunteers have proven they aren’t pregnant or HIV positive, they are enrolled and they need to have five vaccination visits over a year. Three years after enrolling, they are tested for HIV. - Healthe-News