India Tests HIV Vaccine On Humans

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Indian scientists on Monday began the country's first human clinical trials of a vaccine designed to prevent AIDS.

The vaccine trials are part of an international partnership among the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative and U.S.-based Targeted Genetics Corp., Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss told reporters in the western city of Pune.

"Doctors in Pune have today inoculated the first group of volunteers with the potential vaccine," Ramadoss said moments after the first subject was injected.

The testing involves 30 male and female volunteers between 18 and 45 years of age who are free of HIV/AIDS and other major illnesses, doctors involved in the trials said.

During the trials, which are expected to take about 15 months, the vaccine will be given to the volunteers to induce a response from their immune systems that may protect them against HIV infection, said N.K. Ganguly, director of the ICMR.

"The volunteers have been made aware of the risks involved, they have been counseled and their health status will be monitored all the time," Ganguly said.

Seth Berkley of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, speaking in a video conference call from New York, said the trials were part of a global drive to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic which has infected about 40 million people worldwide.

The New York-based IAVI has conducted trials of the vaccine at university clinics in Bonn and Hamburg, and also at Belgian hospitals in Brussels and Antwerp, Berkley said.

The first-phase testing which began a year ago in Germany and Belgium is aimed at determining the safety of the vaccine and whether it produces immune responses.

Known as tgAAC09, the vaccine targets HIV subtype C -- prevalent in South Africa, India and China and responsible for a large part of the world's HIV infections. The vaccine was developed by Seattle-based Targeted Genetics Corp. and the Columbus Children's Research Institute.

"This is a marathon which requires the commitment of the world's political leaders to make the best science and the best facilities available," Berkley said.

India was "essential" to the global vaccine effort because of its advanced biomedical research facilities, and its strong pharmaceuticals industry would be able to deliver a cheap and effective vaccine to the millions infected with HIV, Berkley said.

Experts believe an HIV vaccine could be available in less than a decade, although not within the next five years.

"We're still at the stage were we're testing concepts of what may or may not work," said Dr. Maire-Paule Kieny, director of the World Health Organization's vaccine research program.

"The first vaccines may not be 100 percent effective," and might only help 30-40 percent of patients -- unlike vaccines for other diseases which usually work in 90 percent of cases," Kieny said in Geneva. "But they could still have an important public health impact."

India has more than 5 million people living with HIV/AIDS, the world's second-highest number of infections after South Africa. Almost one-fourth of them are children and young people under the age of 25.

However, many experts have argued that the official estimate leaves out many people in the vast country of more than 1 billion who could be carrying the virus without knowing or reporting it.

"There are 68 new cases of HIV every hour," said S.Y. Qureshi, who heads India's National AIDS Control Organization, one of the partners in the vaccine project. "Those numbers alone should strengthen our resolve to press ahead with the vaccine project."

Nirmala George