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[DURBAN] The first candidate HIV vaccines to be developed in Africa have begun clinical testing at two sites in South Africa.

The South African Medical Research Council's South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative (SAAVI) has been working for eight years to develop the vaccines.

Two candidates will be tested for safety in phase I clinical trials on 12 volunteers at three sites in Boston, United States, and 36 participants between Cape Town and Johannesburg.

The first South African volunteer was injected with the vaccine in Cape Town this week (20 July).

The SAAVI 102/HVTN 073 trial is a collaboration between the South African branch of the international HIV Vaccine Trials Network and the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

The vaccines, SAAVI MVA-C and SAAVI DNA-C2, developed at the University of Cape Town, are based on HIV sub-type C — the dominant strain in South Africa — and have shown promising results in animal testing.

They will be tested in combination, with SAAVI DNA-C2 administered to 'prime' the immune system followed by SAAVI MVA-C to enhance the immune response.

The Medical Research Council's president, Anthony MBewu, told SciDev.Net that although South Africa has tested vaccines designed in Europe and the United States over the last ten years, this is the first time South Africa, or any developing country, has tested an HIV vaccine designed for the country.

If the phase I trial is successful a phase II trial with about 200 recruits will be conducted. If these and subsequent trials go well, MBewu says, there could be a vaccine available in six years.

MBewu says the government has spent 250 million South African rand (around US$34 million) over the past decade funding HIV vaccine research. This has come from the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the Department of Health (DoH).

Although the DST stopped funding SAAVI in 2007 it continues to fund HIV vaccine development through the Technology Innovation Agency. The DoH continues to fund SAAVI, says MBweu.

The phase I clinical trial is being funded by NIAID.