AIDS Vaccine Testing Goes Overseas

A nurse prepares a syringe with an experimental AIDS vaccine at a clinic in Bangkok. The U.S.-funded trial will involve 16,000 test subjects.
A nurse prepares a syringe with an experimental AIDS vaccine at a clinic in Bangkok. The U.S.-funded trial will involve 16,000 test subjects. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 22, 2006

CHONBURI, Thailand -- Inside a ramshackle Buddhist temple here on the country's southeastern coast, curious villagers gathered last fall as part of the United States' biggest gamble yet on stopping the AIDS pandemic.

The informational meeting was almost like a game show as attractive young hosts revved up the crowd, working up to the big question, boomed out over loudspeakers: Would the audience be willing to volunteer to test an experimental HIV vaccine?

The villagers hesitated. No one moved for a full 60 seconds. Then, tentatively, they approached the three stands set up at the front, marked "Join," "Not Join" and "Unsure."

For the past three years, such gatherings have been held all over Thailand, exhorting young adults to take part in the largest, most expensive, most resource-intensive AIDS vaccine trial ever. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, it ultimately will involve 16,000 people and last 3 1/2 years.

But as the trial moves forward, at a cost of more than $120 million, some researchers are raising questions about its validity. They disparage its science, question its ethics and doubt its efficacy.

One of the chief dissenters is Robert C. Gallo, who helped discover the human immunodeficiency virus. He scoffs at the notion that the trial will be successful. "I thought we'd learn more if we had extract of maple leaf in the vaccine," he said derisively.

NIH scientists defend the study, arguing that even if the vaccine doesn't work, the trial may reveal new things about HIV. "With 5 million new infections each year, the luxury of time is absent," four researchers wrote in the journal Science.

Vaccine Is Elusive

When scientists identified HIV as the cause of AIDS 21 years ago, they predicted that a vaccine to prevent the infection would be ready long before a treatment for the symptoms could be developed. The opposite turned out to be true. Many people today, especially in wealthy countries, are keeping the virus in check with drugs, but a vaccine, desperately needed in poor countries, has eluded modern medicine.

Despite years of effort, investment in the billions of dollars, and dozens of small tests in people around the world, there's still no scientific proof that a vaccine is even possible. HIV is a diabolical virus that disables the very immune responses a vaccine needs to trigger in order to work.

And yet the need is so urgent that scientists have gone forward with preliminary human tests of many vaccines on the basis of data they acknowledge is weak. The one in Thailand is the largest.

The fact that no one has ever been cured of AIDS increases the urgency of finding a vaccine. "In contrast to virtually every other microbe we've come across, there isn't a documented case of anyone who . . . ultimately cleared HIV from the body completely. That's why more and more research is being directed at trying to stop infection from happening in the first place," said Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the NIH.

The U.S. government last year spent 22 percent of its $3 billion AIDS research budget on vaccines and other preventive drugs, compared with less than 8 percent a decade ago. (Most of the rest is devoted to developing treatments or a cure for those already infected.) Meanwhile, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation this year designated up to $360 million for AIDS vaccine research, and Congress is encouraging more research with bills that would provide liability protection and tax benefits for drug companies.

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