20 July 2009

Aids vaccine a 'giant leap' for SA

The first clinical trial of an HIV/Aids vaccine developed in SA has been hailed by the Medical Research Council as a "giant leap" for science and technology in South Africa.


The first clinical trial of an HIV/Aids vaccine designed and developed in South Africa was launched in Cape Town on Monday.

Medical Research Council president Anthony MBewu said the development of the vaccines was a "giant leap" for science and technology in South Africa.

"We have had many clinical trials of HIV vaccines in SA over the past 10 years, but this is the first using a vaccine that was designed in this country," MBewu said at the Emavundleni Prevention Centre at Crossroads, outside Cape Town.

The trials will be conducted by the South African Aids Vaccine Initiative (SAAVI) at Crossroads and Soweto, Johannesburg. Trials are currently being carried among 12 people at three sites in Boston in the United States.

How the vaccine will work
The tests aim to determine the immune response of HIV negative people to the vaccines, SAAVI MVA-C (MVA) and SAAVI DNA-C2 (DNA), which were developed by scientists at the University of Cape Town.

The vaccines were designed to represent HIV subtype C, the virus circulating in South Africa, where more than five million people are infected with HIV.

In the trial, the DNA vaccine, which is constructed out of DNA, will tell the body to make a small amount of some of the proteins found in HIV.

The body's immune system may then recognise these proteins and prepare itself to fight HIV.

The MVA vaccine is made out of a virus called Modified Vaccinia Ankara. It is similar to the smallpox vaccine used worldwide. This vaccine will also tell the body to make small amounts of some proteins found in HIV. These proteins may trigger an immune response in the body.

HIV vaccine a ‘great challenge’
MBewu said developing a vaccine against HIV was a greater challenge than putting a man on the moon.

"The wealthiest and most technologically advanced nation on earth, the United States, took 10 years to achieve the success of the Apollo 11 moon landing, but it will take our global vaccine enterprise many more than 10 years and billions of dollars of investment to develop a successful HIV vaccine."

He said when a vaccine was eventually developed, it would "rank amongst the greatest achievements of mankind in the 21st century". "South Africa will be at the heart of that endeavour."

MBewu said South Africa has spent around R250 million on developing the vaccines and said the capacity that SAAVI had developed in HIV vaccine research and development will ensure South Africa has a better chance designing and manufacturing vaccines against other infectious diseases, such as new strains of HIV or A/H1N1 (swine flu) or H5N1 influenza (avian flu).

Vaccine has to be better than natural immune system
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the vaccine's launch was "a very important event".

He applauded the Aids research partnerships between the United States and South Africa. South Africa, he said, has some of the finest scientists in the world.

"Some of the most important Aids research has been from the partnership we've had over the years," he said, adding that developing a vaccine would not be easy. We have to develop a vaccine that does even better than the natural immune system," he said.

SAAVI director Elise Levendal said the vaccine trials held in Boston, USA had so far shown "good results".

’Remember trials are about real people’
"We don't know if the vaccines will be good enough to move to an efficacy trial, but the trials will result in information that will help us create a better vaccine next time."

Deputy Health Minister Molefi Sefularo said it was important to "remain conscious" that the trials were about individuals and families affected by HIV.

"It is about a bread winner, a complete family or an incomplete family," Sefularo said. – (Sapa, July 2009)

Read more:
SA tests Aids vaccine


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HIV/Aids expert

Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl qualified at the University of Pretoria before working for an HIV/AIDS NPO in Soweto for many years. She was named one of the Mail & Guardian's Top 200 Young South Africans in 2012.

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