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Researchers Have High Hopes For New HIV Vaccine Trial In South Africa


In South Africa, an estimated 7 million people live with HIV. Despite prevention efforts, there are a thousand new infections every day. And researchers now have launched a big vaccine trial in the country. Peter Granitz reports from Pretoria.

PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: The Setshaba Research Centre is one of 15 sites across South Africa where the HIV vaccine trials are taking place. Setshaba sits in a sprawling mostly poor township north of Pretoria called Soshanguve. More than a dozen women sit along the walls of the lobby looking at cell phones, chatting in Sotho and Setswana. It's hot, and the lobby door remains open. There's a poster on the wall advertising the HIV vaccine trial.

Dr. Mookho Malahleha directs the research center and is co-chair of the South African trial. She says her goal is to ensure the vaccine regimen is safe and useful in more than 50 percent of recipients, something she says she does not know is possible.

MOOKHO MALAHLEHA: If you have a vaccine that has 50 percent efficacy, you would have prevented 50 infections out of that group of hundreds that would have become infected. So to us as a country with a huge HIV burden, that 50 out of a hundred is huge.

GRANITZ: A young woman who identifies herself as Jane Makhane volunteered to take part in the study. She's 21 years old and studying human resources management in college. The study is anonymous, so Jane is a pseudonym. Makhane is short and polite, and from time to time she nervously laughs. She says a friend who volunteered to participate convinced her to do the same.

JANE MAKHANE: It makes me happy and nervous at the same time because it hasn't been proven that I will be safe. And I know that I might be safe, so it makes me happy knowing that I might be safe.

GRANITZ: The trial will involve 5,400 sexually active men and women between the ages of 18 and 35. All of them must be HIV negative. Half will receive the vaccine regiment and half will receive a placebo. This study is double blind, meaning neither Makhane nor the doctors administering the drugs know if it's a placebo.

Makhane's dated the same guy for three years, doesn't use drugs, and she considers herself largely safe from HIV infection. She knows many friends who are infected. Her uncle has HIV and his wife, her aunt, died from the disease. Her parents did not want her to participate in the trial.

MAKHANE: Because they thought that I might also be infected by the injection.

GRANITZ: The vaccine does not contain the live virus, says Dr. Malahleha. Instead, it contains bio-engineered pieces of the virus, causing the body to react and create an immune response. The vaccine targets HIV subtype C, the prevalent form in Southern Africa.

MALAHLEHA: You would receive the vaccine which will now trick your body or teach your body to create these antibodies - or your immune response - which will then be able to protect you should there be an actual real exposure to the HIV virus.

GRANITZ: The vaccine requires 5 injections within a year, then researchers will follow up for the following two years to test whether the vaccine regimen works. Results for the vaccine study are expected by 2020. If it meets the 50 percent threshold, it could be licensed, manufactured and sold after that, says Nancy Fee, the senior policy adviser at UNAIDS in South Africa.

NANCY FEE: I'm not saying this would be the ultimate answer, but it certainly would make a huge contribution.

GRANITZ: A huge contribution, but not a solution. There's still no cure, and the millions of people who have HIV need to take antiretroviral drugs for the rest of their lives.

FEE: Prevention has its challenges, particularly on this scale, and also because it needs to be lifelong. People need to commit to this literally for their whole life.

GRANITZ: Whatever the outcome, researchers will base future trials on the results of this one. For NPR News, I'm Peter Granitz in Pretoria.


Peter Granitz