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Trials of First AIDS Vaccine Candidate Designed for Africa Officially Begin in Nairobi

March 06, 2001

NAIROBI, Kenya, 6 March 2001—The first AIDS vaccine candidate designed specifically for Africa officially entered human trials in Nairobi today when Dr. Pamela Mandela Idenya of the Kenyatta National Hospital became one of the first volunteers to be inoculated in the Phase I trial.

The preventive vaccine candidate is based on subtype A of HIV, the most common strain in East Africa. The vaccine candidate is the product of an International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI)-funded partnership between the research teams of the Medical Research Council’s Human Immunology Unit at Oxford University in the United Kingdom and the University of Nairobi in Kenya.

“A universally accessible AIDS vaccine is the world’s best hope for ending this pandemic,” said Dr. Seth Berkley, MD, president and chief executive officer of IAVI. The New York-based organization recently launched a $550 million capital campaign with a $100 million challenge grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

IAVI acts as a virtual vaccine company, canvassing the globe for the most promising scientific prospects. IAVI currently has five different AIDS vaccine candidates under development, all for Africa, and intends to launch vaccine development projects in India and China this month. “We salute Dr. Idenya and, indeed, all of those who have volunteered to participate in AIDS vaccine clinical trials,” Dr. Berkley said. “They are the true heroes of this endeavor. With 15,000 new HIV infections every day, there is no time to spare.”

“Global problems require global solutions,” said Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, director-general of the World Health Organization and chair of the Global Alliance on Vaccination and Immunization. “A vaccine is the best hope for controlling this epidemic -- in Africa and throughout the world.”

Dr. Brundtland added that vaccines have traditionally taken far too long to trickle down to countries that need them most. “I commend IAVI and its partners for planning ahead to assure global access to this vaccine should it prove to be successful,” she said.

In December the three nonprofit partners announced an agreement under which all existing and future patents covering the vaccine candidate will be owned jointly by the Medical Research Council, the University of Nairobi and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. The partners agreed to use their patent ownership and any resulting royalties to help ensure access to a successful AIDS vaccine in Kenya and in other developing countries.

Phase I testing of the subtype A DNA vaccine began last August in Oxford, when Dr. Evan Harris, a member of the British Parliament, became the first individual to be injected with the vaccine.

Prof. Andrew McMichael, head of the Medical Research Council’s Human Immunology Unit in Oxford and one of the world’s leading researchers in cellular immunity, said: “We are excited that trials have begun in Nairobi for this approach. Our research indicates that this vaccine has a very good chance of stimulating cellular immune responses to HIV. Research also suggests that white blood cells activated by the vaccine can destroy virus-infected cells. For HIV, this approach may be more effective than the traditional vaccine approach of stimulating antibodies.”

The rationale for this approach comes from extensive studies of sex workers in Nairobi and elsewhere. Despite frequent exposure to HIV, a small minority of these women has resisted infection over many years. “We hope this vaccine will stimulate the same strong cellular immune response to HIV that we have seen in these women,” said Prof. J. J. Bwayo, who is chairman of the Department of Medical Microbiology at the University of Nairobi.

Bwayo said: “Until now, most AIDS vaccines have been made from strains circulating in the North, specifically, subtype B. The development of this vaccine begins to address the great need for vaccines designed specifically for Africa.” He added: “We recognize that vaccine trials on HIV/AIDS present unique challenges. This trial has gone through rigorous safety and ethical protocols. With HIV we insisted on even higher standards of safety and ethics. The vaccine candidate is not curative but preventive. It is inspired by findings by our scientists in Nairobi.”

The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative is an international nonprofit scientific organization founded in 1996 whose mission is to ensure the development of safe, effective, accessible, preventive HIV vaccines for use throughout the world. IAVI’s work focuses on four areas: creating global demand for AIDS vaccines through advocacy and education; accelerating scientific progress; encouraging industrial involvement in AIDS vaccine development; and assuring global access. IAVI is a UNAIDS collaborating centre. Its major donors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Sloan Foundation and the Starr Foundation; the governments of the United Kingdom, the United States, the Netherlands, Canada and Ireland; and the World Bank.