HIV vaccine development topped the agenda today at a United Nations-backed meeting in Yaoundé, Cameroon, that is bringing together some 200 experts, including African and international scientists, representatives of research agencies, donors and government and regional organization officials.
Participants will review the current status of HIV vaccine research and development, as well as a range of challenges concerning Africa's active participation and contribution to this project.
“On top of the great scientific challenges that need to be overcome in order to develop an HIV vaccine, Africa is currently facing the need to strengthen capacity in many areas in order to support such research,” said Dr. Luis Gomes Sambo, World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa.
Key issues include legislation, vaccine regulation, ethics, research policy and the ability to negotiate with sponsors of clinical trials as well as with pharmaceutical companies.
By the end of the three-day Forum, participants are expected to produce a set of recommendations for further work to strengthen research capacity in Africa.
The need is enormous. As of the end of last year, an estimated 25 million of the 40 million people infected worldwide were African. Different strains of the disease are particular to the continent.
“A major scientific challenge for developing a safe and effective vaccine that will protect the African population is the extensive variety of HIV sub-types existing in Africa, including in Cameroon,” said Dr Marie-Paule Kieny, Director, WHO Initiative for Vaccine Research.
Dr. Catherine Hankins, Chief Scientific Adviser at the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), agreed that Africa, as the continent most affected by AIDS, stands to gain “maximum benefit” from an eventual HIV vaccine. “A safe and effective HIV vaccine for Africans will only become a reality if Africans are full participants in HIV vaccine research,” she added.
The first clinical HIV vaccine trial took place in the United States in 1987. Eighty trials – including two phase III trials in Thailand and the United States which did not demonstrate any significant level of efficacy – have taken place throughout the world testing more than 50 different candidate vaccines, according to WHO.
Five African countries are currently conducting phase I and phase II clinical trials of candidate HIV vaccines – Botswana, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda – and are soon to be joined by Tanzania. One large scale phase III trial involving 16,000 volunteers is currently under way in Thailand.