A revolution in HIV vaccine where it’s needed the most

HIV vaccine research

A researcher holds an experimental vaccine against HIV Aids virus in Shoshaguve, near Pretoria in South Africa in 2016. The road to an HIV vaccine has been long and winding.

Photo credit: Mujahid Safodien | AFP

Covid-19 has forced a long-overdue conversation about the need for low- and middle-income countries to build infrastructure so as to manufacture vaccines to respond to diseases, outbreaks and pandemics.

The Rwanda and South African Covid-19 vaccine production hubs announced late last year could become the template for vaccine self-sufficiency in Sub-Saharan Africa and other underserved regions. But the ambition should not stop there. With HIV for instance, scientists and programmers contend that it is the actual vaccine trial design and delivery that also needs to be more local nuanced and culturally specific. In Sub-Saharan Africa, that would build on the significant international collaboration with local researchers over the past few decades around the development of neutralising antibodies.

The launch of the first participant screenings in a Phase I clinical trial of a next-generation mRNA HIV vaccine antigen at the Centre for Family Health Research (CFHR) in Kigali and the Aurum Institute for Health in Tembisa is, thus, a milestone in African science. It is indicative of growing efforts to answer critical research questions that can advance HIV vaccine development being increasingly led by scientists in countries where a vaccine is needed most.

The IAVI-sponsored HIV vaccine trial, IAVI G003, builds on progress in HIV vaccine research. What is exciting about it is that we shall be conducting, for the first time in Africa, cutting-edge immunological analysis of the samples from participants to evaluate whether the targeted responses were achieved. The IAVI G003 study draws on the growing capacity that of cutting-edge basic, clinical, epidemiological and translational research across multiple disease areas in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Long and winding

The ADVANCE (Accelerate the Development of Vaccines and New Technologies to Combat the Aids Epidemic) initiative has been at the forefront of this shift, providing a platform to transfer cutting-edge technologies and enhanced laboratory research capacities that enable African research institutions and scientists to play key roles in the design of novel biomedical prevention products using promising technologies. ADVANCE collaborators will engage the participants in parallel socio-behavioural research to understand the acceptability of sampling techniques used and how the trial impacts individuals and their communities.

The road to an HIV vaccine has been long and winding. That we are evaluating an mRNA-delivered HIV immunogen in Africa with African scientists and researchers at the helm is nothing short of a revolution in HIV vaccine development.

Dr Nduati (PhD) is a principal investigator at the Kemri Wellcome Trust Research Programme (KWTRP) in Kilifi, Kenya, and immunology analysis lead for the G003 study. @eunicewnduati