SOUTH Africa has launched human trials of the first African-produced HIV vaccine as scientists seek new approaches to fight Aids in one of the world's worst affected countries.
The locally produced vaccine, being tested in Soweto and Cape Town as well as in the US, was the highlight of an international Aids conference in Cape Town this week, where the trial was officially launched.
A successful vaccine, while years away, could be the only solution for a country with nearly six million infections, and with the financial burden of treating Aids patients threatening to cripple the health system.
"If we don't find a prevention strategy for South Africa, we are in big trouble. We are not going to treat ourselves out of this epidemic," Linda-Gail Bekker, a principal investigator in the trial, said.
A total of 48 volunteers will take part in the study, 36 in South Africa. The phase one trials will investigate whether the drug is safe for human use.
The vaccine, developed at the University of Cape Town and manufactured with input from the US National Institutes of Health, is the first to go on trial in South Africa since 2007.
That trial of a vaccine by pharmaceutical company Merck was stopped after studies found it actually heightened the risk of Aids infection, striking a double blow to efforts to find a vaccine 30 years into the pandemic.
Disappointments in the vaccine effort have sparked arguments that more money should be spent on other prevention efforts, such as microbicides - anti-HIV substances that reduce the risk of infection - and male circumcision, which show more potential.
A report released at the conference of the International Aids Society on treatment showed that for the first time in a decade Aids vaccine research declined by 10percent last year.
Jerry Coovadia, co-chairperson of the world's largest scientific Aids conference, said the prevention research field was in a "taking-stock" stage ahead of the release of results from several large-scale trials.
About 25 million people have died from Aids. While a preventative vaccine is seen as first prize, a so-called therapeutic vaccine could ease the lives of millions taking anti-retroviral (ARVs) drugs.
David Sheon, spokesperson for Norwegian drug company Bionor Immuno, said for Aids patients who have developed a resistance to current ARVs a therapeutic vaccine is critical.
The company is testing a vaccine that appears to reduce the amount of HIV in the body, enabling some trial patients to stay off their ARVs for up to five years.
"Even those who are extremely involved in preventative vaccines acknowledge there is an urgent need for a therapeutic vaccine to treat patients who actually already have HIV," Sheon said. - Sapa-AFP