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Results from Harvard University study underscore need for more AIDS vaccine research

January 22, 2002

Researchers at Harvard University are testing a vaccine in monkeys designed to protect animals—and ultimately humans—who become infected with the AIDS virus from developing AIDS. Since 1999, this vaccine has kept seven infected monkeys AIDS-free.

But an eighth monkey tested with the same vaccine showed dramatically different results, the Harvard researchers have reported in the science journal Nature. While the vaccine intially prevented the AIDS virus from causing disease, its effect wore off after about two years. It appears that the virus learned to outwit the vaccine by mutating one of its genes. With the vaccine no longer able to suppress the infection, it led to AIDS, and the monkey died.

In response, Dr. Seth Berkley, President and CEO of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), issued this statement:

“To be sure, this is disappointing news. But it by no means represents failure.

“Problems with the Harvard vaccine, to date found in only one of eight monkeys, may be a rare fluke, or they may be symptomatic of serious shortcomings; time will tell. Nonetheless, the big picture is that the Harvard team's approach is just one of numerous potential designs for an AIDS vaccine. Some of these alternatives are already in development or testing. Those that are not must be moved forward quickly.

“The news from Harvard does not shake our conviction that with perseverance, the world will find a vaccine for AIDS. But it does remind us that there is no sure recipe for a winning product, other than to sort systematically through different concepts, and ultimately test the most promising in humans. Many of these are bound to prove ineffective, but by pursuing enough possibilities, we can find a winner.

“As in all of science, success is unlikely on the first tries. At the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, we are investing in the development and testing of multiple AIDS vaccines, to speed the chance of finding a safe and effective product.

“Although the epidemic has been with us for more than 20 years, vaccine research is really still in its early stages. Only recently has the world pledged political and financial resources to vaccine development. Over the next decade, this commitment must be sustained, and increased even more.

“The history of vaccine development, from the 19th century to the present day, demonstrates that by trying novel ideas, we can overcome the deadliest of infectious diseases. If one idea proves unsuccessful, we simply must try again.”