A new clinical trial is underway in South Africa on an experimental vaccine that could safely prevent HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The study, which is expected to commence on Wednesday, could be “the final nail in the coffin” for the disease if it is successful, scientists say.
The study, called HVTN 702, aims to enroll 5,400 sexually active men and women aged between 18 and 35 at 15 sites across South Africa.
It will be the largest and most advanced HIV vaccine clinical trial to take place in South Africa, where more than 1,000 people a day are infected with HIV.
“If deployed alongside our current armoury of proven HIV prevention tools, a safe and effective vaccine could be the final nail in the coffin for HIV,” Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. government’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said in a statement released ahead of the trial.
“Even a moderately effective vaccine would significantly decrease the burden of HIV disease over time in countries and populations with high rates of HIV infection, such as South Africa,” he said.
Following years of global battle with the human immunodeficiency virus, researchers were encouraged in 2009 when a test of a vaccine on 16,000 people in Thailand turned up a previously unknown vulnerability in the resilient pathogen.
The vaccine was only 31 percent effective and wore off over time, so it could not be approved for use in a general population.
Should the vaccine prove to be 50 percent to 60 percent effective, experts say, that would be sufficient for drugmakers Sanofi Pasteur and GSK to begin licensing negotiations with the South African government.
The new vaccine aims to provide greater and more sustained protection and has been adapted to the HIV subtype that predominates in southern Africa.
“HIV has taken a devastating toll in South Africa, but now we begin a scientific exploration that could hold great promise for our country,” said Glenda Gray, chief executive officer of the South African Medical Research Council.
“If an HIV vaccine were found to work in South Africa, it could dramatically alter the course of the pandemic.”