Africa ‘must not stop HIV vaccine trials’

Anzala: "We cannot stop now. We are ready and are going to be a part of the solution" Copyright: SciDev.Net/Mohammed Yahia

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[MEXICO CITY] Shutting down clinical trial centres in Africa in response to continued failure of HIV vaccine candidates would be a big mistake, researchers warned at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City yesterday (5 August).

They stressed the pivotal role played by Africa and African researchers in the search for a HIV vaccine.

"We need to get used to the idea that scientists will make incremental advances as we go forward and we will learn from them," said Alan Bernstein, executive director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise. "Failure is part of the game. We have to get used to the idea of candidates failing during the trial."

"It has taken Africa 4–5 years to build the infrastructure and capacity for us to be able to carry out vaccine trials," said Omu Anzala, associate professor at the University of Nairobi School of Medicine and director of the Kenya AIDS Vaccine Initiative (KAVI).

Anzala believes this work will "feed into HIV vaccine discovery, drug discovery, and … bring all these other preventive technologies".

He also stressed that the breakthrough cannot come from anywhere except Africa. In addition to having two thirds of all people living with HIV/AIDS, all subtypes of the virus are present on the continent.

Pharmaceutical company Merck conducted a large-scale clinical trial of an HIV vaccine in nine countries in 2007. But the trials were halted in September after the vaccine failed to prevent infection or lower the amount of HIV in the blood.

"We see the failure of the Merck trials as a failure of a product, but not the failure of the trial," Anzala said. "We cannot stop now. We are ready and are going to be a part of the solution."

In its AIDS Vaccine Blueprint 2008, releasedat the International AIDS meeting, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative outlines a series of challenges to overcome to achieve a safe, effective vaccine.

The blueprint suggests progress should be measured against shorter-term scientific milestones, which would help reset expectations for the search for a vaccine but still keep the focus on its importance.

"The HIV vaccine research field is at a crossroads. This is going to be a long journey and we need to capture the best minds and attract young researchers," said Bernstein.

"We all have to just not give up, we need to reinforce our commitment to a vaccine."