A little apprehension but also a lot of hope. The first volunteers received in South Africa on Wednesday an injection of an experimental vaccine against AIDS which, if successful, would make a leap forward in the fight against the epidemic.
In the heart of the township of Soshanguve, in the north of the capital Pretoria, “Jane” is one of the first to participate in this large-scale clinical trial. Very proud to be on the front line of the fight against the HIV virus.
“I know people who are HIV-positive, I know who died because of HIV, some of my family, it’s for them that I’m here,” says the 21-year-old student whose name Remain hidden to respect the ethical rules of the test.
“I want to change things for my community and for my country,” she says.
Called HVTN 702, the study that began at the Soshanguve research center and in fourteen other sites in the country is one of the most ambitious in recent years against the virus.
“This is an important step,” says Dr. Larry Corey of the HIV Vaccine Trial Network (HVTN). “This study will provide us with important data to develop a vaccine that will prevent infection and stop the epidemic.”
The “candidate” tested since Wednesday is from a strain tested seven years ago in Thailand and which reduced the infection rate by 31.2%. Encouraging, but insufficient.
This vaccine has been doped and improved and will be tested during the next four years on 5,400 South Africans, men and women, aged between 18 and 35 years.
In the township of Soshanguve, the campaign of recruitment of these volunteers aroused some reticences.
“People who wanted to participate were worried about what would be done with their blood samples,” says Mmapule Raborife, in charge of informing the population. “We showed them a video of explanation and they finally accepted.”
– “Giving hope” –
To reassure, scientists also had to twist the blow to certain preconceived notions.
“This vaccine does not contain any real pieces of HIV,” insists one of them, Dr. Mookho Malhalela. “It is made up of synthetic copies that resemble HIV to elicit an immune response and antibodies.”
And the prospect of finally finding a cure for the disease has finally convinced the most circumspect.
“It is important (…) to give people hope, we have been there for thirty-five years,” insists Mmapule Raborife, “everyone is waiting for this vaccine.”
South Africa is one of the most affected countries in the world by the scourge of HIV, with a prevalence rate of 19.2%. Every day, about 1,000 people are infected.
Antiretroviral (ARV) treatments have slowed the epidemic and significantly increased the life expectancy of patients. But they are still only accessible to a small half of the already infected South African population.
“The development of a vaccine is essential for South Africa (…), our prevention methods do not work well enough,” regrets Glenda Gray, who participates in the study and heads the National Council South African Research Council (NRCSA).
“The fight against HIV is a bit like a war,” she adds. “We already have guns, bullets, grenades, the vaccine would be an assault tank.” To fight HIV, we need all the arsenal.
Even if they are reluctant to display their goals, researchers hope that the efficacy rate of their prototype vaccine will reach at least the 50% threshold.
“If this vaccine is considered sufficiently effective, it will take between five and ten years to develop its production,” Professor Gray prognoses, “and we will need money.”
Far from this possible success, “Jane” is preparing to receive his first injections. “I’m not afraid of stings or HIV,” she says, bravado. “There is no cure yet, so we have to keep fighting.”