CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) - South Africa is launching
clinical trials of the first AIDS vaccines created by a developing
country, a feat by scientists who forged ahead even when some of
their political leaders shocked the world with unscientific
pronouncements about the disease.
Trials to test the safety in humans of the vaccines begin this
month on 36 healthy volunteers, Anthony Mbewu, president of South
Africa's government-supported Medical Research Council, said in an
interview Sunday. Mbewu's respected organization shepherded the
A trial of 12 volunteers in the United States began earlier this
Mbewu said the vaccine was designed at the University of Cape
Town with technical help from the U.S. National Institutes of
Health, which also manufactured the vaccine.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of
Allergy and Infectious Disease and a leading AIDS researcher, was
in South Africa for the launch.
During nearly 10 years of denial and neglect, South Africa
developed a staggering AIDS crisis. Around 5.2 million South
Africans were living with HIV last year - the highest number of any
country in the world. Young women are hardest hit, with one-third
of those aged 20 to 34 infected with the virus.
In 1999, the ministries of health and of science and technology
founded the vaccine initiative and poured 250 million rand into it
over nearly 10 years.
Some 250 scientists and technicians worked on the project, along
the way gaining scores of doctorates and producing work for
professional publications as well as a model for continued
biotechnology development in South Africa.
The government decided it was important to develop a vaccine
specifically for the HIV subtype C strain that is prevalent in
southern Africa "and to ensure that once developed, it would be
available at an affordable price," Mbewu said.
"We have the biggest problem" in the world, Mbewu said on the
sidelines of an international AIDS conference in Cape Town.
"Every emerging country is trying, wants to develop their own
capacity to design and develop vaccines - Brazil, Korea," Mbewu
But the South Africans are the first to reach the clinical trial
stage, though years of testing will be needed.
At the AIDS conference later, South Africa's Vice President
Kgalema Motlanthe emphasized the clinical trials are being held
"under strict ethical rules." The first trial may have been
started in the United States to allay any criticism that the U.S.
was collaborating in an AIDS vaccine that would use Africans as
The field of AIDS vaccine research is so filled with
disappointments some activists are questioning the wisdom of
continuing such expensive investments, saying the money might be
better spent on prevention and education.
Mbewu said the crisis in South Africa more than justifies the
"With 5.2 million already infected and with hundreds getting
infected every day despite all the condom distribution and
behavioral education programs, we know that a vaccine really is
what we need," he said.
And he said there are many other benefits. The cadre of South
African scientists now able to develop complex technological
vaccines for HIV can use that same expertise to fight tuberculosis
and avian flu.
"When the next influenza pandemic hits the world, every country
will be scrambling to develop a vaccine ... so it is important that
countries like South Africa have the technology and capacity to
develop vaccines and the industry to manufacture them," Mbewu
South Africa was the site of the biggest setback to AIDS vaccine
research, when the most promising vaccine ever, produced by Merck &
Co. and tested in a study in South Africa in 2007, found that
people who got the vaccine were more likely to contract HIV than
those who did not.
In the 1990s, South Africa's then-President Thabo Mbeki denied
the link between HIV and AIDS, and his health minister, Manto
Tshabalala-Msimang, mistrusted conventional anti-AIDS drugs and
made the country a laughing stock trying to promote beets and lemon
as AIDS remedies.
At the conference opening, co-chairman Dr. Hoosen Jerry Coovadia
reminded the thousands of scientists, researchers, doctors and
activists of the importance the international scientific community
had made to South Africa's progress in mounting an effective AIDS
response in 2000, when the largest international AIDS meeting was
held in the South African port city of Durban.
Some 5,000 scientists signed the Durban declaration that
affirmed the human immunodeficiency virus was the cause of AIDS.
Coovadia, who is professor in HIV/AIDS research at the
University of Natal-Durban, said today the international science
community must ensure that governments keep their commitment to
ensuring universal access to life-giving anti-retroviral drugs.
It was the Durban conference that opened the way for the rollout
of ARV therapy in poor and middle-income countries where today more
than 3 million people are receiving treatment, said Dr. Julio
Montaner, president of the International AIDS Society.
He said those gains are threatened today by warnings that the
global financial crisis must affect supplies of ARVs.
Montaner said it was extraordinary that the United States is the
only member of the G-8 conference of rich developing countries that
has paid up what it promised to fight AIDS.
"We must hold the G-8 leaders accountable for their failure to
deliver on their promises," Montaner said.
"A retrenchment now would be catastrophic for the nearly 4
million people who are already on treatment in resource-limited
countries" and some 7 million others waiting for treatment.
"AIDS is not in recession!" South African AIDS activist
Vusikeya Dubula said to cheers from the conference. "