It's been more than 30 years since the start of the global HIV/AIDS pandemic that has claimed “an estimated 36 million deaths”—and Blacks across the African Diaspora have been disproportionately impacted. There is finally some promising news in HIV vaccine research.
A possible “breakthrough” was presented publicly for the first time at the 13th AIDS Vaccine Conference, which was held in Barcelona, Spain from October 7 to 10. Louis J. Picker, M.D. associate director of the Vaccine & Gene Therapy Institute at Oregon Health and Science University, presented research that demonstrated vaccinated monkeys can clear simian immunodeficiency virus—the monkey equivalent of HIV—from their bodies.
The vaccine was effective in nine of the 16 monkeys in the study. Picker originally published his research last month in the journal Nature. “This is the first proof of concept that an AIDS-causing virus can be eliminated by an immune response,” Picker said. The vaccine used cytomegalovirus as a platform. CMV is already found in most humans and belongs to the herpes virus family. “Most CMV infections are ‘silent,’ meaning most people who are infected with CMV have no signs or symptoms,” reports the Centers for Disease Controls and Infections.
The CMV-based HIV vaccine would “patrol all the tissues of the body, all the time, indefinitely," explained Picker.
“More than half of the people in the United States already have this virus in their body. Up to 90 percent of people in the developing world have it,” Picker told EBONY. “We have a large safety margin because more than 5 billion people are already infected.”
Picker is not sure why the vaccine worked in only about half of the monkeys—perhaps that particular strain of SIV was “too deadly.” Picker’s research team used an “aggressive” strain of the SIVmac239 virus described as “up to 100 times more deadly than HIV” by the BBC.
Picker is confident the vaccine could work in humans. "The stars are aligned and we feel we have a very good shot. [It] also seems to work for tuberculosis and we need a larger study to prove this.” Picker estimates it could take “at least two years” to secure funding and regulatory approval for Phase I clinical trials in humans.
An estimated 35 million plus people are living with HIV/AIDS, reports UNAIDS and AVERT. A vaccine would be especially welcome across the African Diaspora. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to two-thirds of all people living with HIV/AIDS. The Caribbean has “a higher HIV prevalence than any other region in the world” outside Africa.
There is also our crisis at home. African-Americans and other Black communities represent only 14% of the United States’ population but account for nearly half—some 44%—of all new infections, reports the CDC. Black gay and bisexual men suffer the highest new infection rates in the country. New infections among Black women “are declining for the first time in over a decade," EBONY reported earlier this year. But infection rates among Black women are still nearly 15 times higher than those among White women.
The decades-long quest for an HIV vaccine research has proven elusive because the virus constantly mutates and “hides” from the body’s immune system. “Within one infected person there could be thousands of infected viruses. So you need something that is broad or that can be retained,” Director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise William Snow told EBONY.
The Enterprise is the international consortium that sponsors the annual international AIDS Vaccine conference and has pooled resources to “speed the development of a safe and effective HIV vaccine.” It includes representatives from the US, Thailand and South African governments, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, UNAIDS, World Health Organization and Sanofi Pasteur, the largest company in the world devoted to vaccine development.
More promising news: Thailand and South Africa are moving forward with two large clinical trials based on the modest success of the AIDS vaccine trial known as RV 144. Sixteen thousand volunteers in Thailand participated in the world’s largest and most promising vaccine trial with results announced in September 2009. RV 144 was a milestone but reduced new infections by only 31 percent.
The government of South Africa has also “expressed a willingness to license a vaccine if we have a threshold of 50 percent,” an official with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation told reporters in Barcelona.
South Africa has the unfortunate distinction of “the highest number of people infected with HIV in the world.” South African physicians, researchers, policy makers and advocates at AIDS Vaccine 2013 welcomed the upcoming vaccine trial. "On the eve of some of the most important vaccine trials, I am proud of the critical role that the people of South Africa will play," said Ntando Yalo of the Networking AIDS Community of South Africa, who spoke during the opening plenary session.
“Even if both of those trials succeed we may have licensed vaccines that are only valid in Thailand and/or South Africa because of the different sub-types of HIV,” Mitchell Warren, executive director of the AIDS vaccine and biomedical prevention advocacy group AVAC told EBONY. “This is why we need a global vaccine.”
Rod McCullom has written and produced for ABC News, NBC, The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, EBONY and others. He is reporting from Barcelona as an AIDS Vaccine 2013 International Media Fellow.