12 July 2002

Africa: HIV/Aids Vaccine Underway

Lagos — Recently, an American company, VaxGen announced at the on - going 14th International Conference on HIV/AIDS in Barcelona, Spain that a vaccine that will prevent AIDS might be available in the next five years. The HIV vaccines will work by stimulating the production of antibodies. According to VaxGen, "it is the only one in phase III tests in humans, where scientists are looking to see if the vaccine prevents HIV infection. Another vaccine is in phase II trials. This looks at dosage and immune response and about six are in phase I safety trials. Fear is that the vaccine might be long in coming since the time between testing and availability could be prolonged. However, VaxGen, President, Donald Francis said at the conference that a balance needs to be created between returns to investors and providing the drugs at reasonable price.

He said: "these efforts take up to $400 million and investors expect a return on their investments". Based on the report available to THISDAY, 8,000 people in three continents are undertaking tests of the vaccine in two seperate trials as results are expected next year.

According to the report, if the drugs, AIDSVAX B/B and AIDSVAX B/E are licensed, production will commence from San Francisco in late 2004 or in 2005 while a larger operation will be expected in Incheon, South Korea in 2006.

Experts explain that AIDS vaccines use specific parts of HIV, such as genes or proteins to activate the body's immune defences with the hope that the body will militate on encountering the real virus. "To combat HIV effectively, scientists will have to follow the model of the flu virus and constantly change the vaccine to try to keep up with the latest mutations of the virus".

AIDS is complex. There are different types of strains of HIV that mutuates. But if the new vaccines prove to be 30 per cent effective, it might be licensed wuithin five years and used first on high risk groups : commercial sex workers and intravenous drug users said the report. Experts also assert that if the vaccine proves effective it will be part of the immunization programme. "We would hope to protect every child from this disease", said Seth Berkley, President of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative.

Currently, the vaccine is being tested in Europe, Asia and America. But with the prevalence of different strains in different areas, scientists are yet to determine if the vaccine will be of help to sub-Saharan Africans.

Unfortunately, reports indicate that infection has exceeded predictions. Experts forsee adverse consequences of the disease in years unless there is timely intervention through protection and treatment. According to the UNAIDS Report on the Global HIV/AIDS Epidemic, the disease is ecscalating more than was believed. Research posits that AIDS is spreading fast in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe and has infected 4O million people worldwide.

A study presented at the conference showed that the number of newly diagnosed patients infected with drug resistant forms of HIV is on the increase. This researchers noted have limited the effectiveness of anti - AIDS drugs. "People are increasingly becoming infected with a virus that is difficult to treat", said Dr. Frederick Hecht of the University of California. He also added that though new classes of drugs such as non - nucleoside reverse transcroptase inhibitors (NNRTIs) have worked, resistance to NNRTISs has increased from a zero level to 13 per cent last year. The virus' resistance to protease inhibitors has more than doubled from three per cent to seven per cent, researchers noted. Also, the resistance is affecting patient care. At times it takes 12 weeks for drugs to show clinical effectiveness in drug - resistant patients against four weeks in others.

So far, it has been suggested that the average life expectancy of people living in 11 African countries will drop below 40 by 2010.

The treatment of the disease has been enmeshed in controversies arising from the price of drugs developed by pharmaceutical companies with the World Health Organisation (WHO) who says that $10 billion is needed annually to combat the scourge and has AIDS solicited for reduction in price.

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