HIV AIDS has been and still is one of the major pandemic of the 21st century. Since the discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus in the early 80s, more than 76 million individuals have been infected and the infection was fatal in 35 millions of them. The advent of antiretroviral treatment and other efficient biomedical prevention tools have been useful in reversing the slope of the infection but AIDS is not over as there is no cure nor Vaccine to date that can treat or protect from acquiring the infection. A safe and efficacious vaccine remains our ultimate hope to reach the goal of zero new infections and to ever see AIDS-free generations in the future. For the last few decades, the scientific community worldwide has been more than ever committed to find a safe and effective vaccine for HIV and Rwanda was not left behind in this journey. Every year on the 18th of May, scientists, sponsors, healthcare providers, stakeholders and communities celebrate the HIV Vaccine Awereness Day (HVAD) and it is in this
context that The New Times’ JOSEPH MUDINGU had a one-on-one with Dr Julien M. Nyombayire, a research physician and investigator at Projet San Francisco (PSF) about the HIV vaccine research history of the organization and its impact in Rwanda.
According to Dr Nyombayire, PSF was founded and established in Rwanda since 1986 to conduct HIV prevention and treatment research as well as providing clinical care and counseling for HIV-infected individuals.
Conferring to Dr Nyombayire, the HIV Vaccine Research Journey at PSF started 15 years ago (2003) and in partnership with the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), a USAID funded non-for profit organization based in the US and whose main mission is to find a safe and effective HIV vaccine. “The Initial work has been to build capacity in country to enable PSF to conduct state-of-the-art clinical trials according to internationally recognized standards. Later on in 2005, PSF launched its first HIV vaccine trial with sponsorship from IAVI and to date seven trials have been conducted in Rwanda at PSF”, said Dr Nyombayire. These trials were all initial preliminary phases (phase 1) and had the main objective of assessing whether the vaccines candidate are safe (do not cause harm) to healthy and non HIV-infected adults individuals who received them, and also to identify if the vaccines have the potential to generate immune responses that could later on protect individuals from acquiring the virus. More than 2
00 healthy Rwandans have participated in these trials.” “Most vaccines candidate tested so far were safe and generated immune responses in the recipients. However, those immune responses were not enough for the vaccines to move to late phases of testing. Research should therefore continue.” Dr Nyombayire added.
He further added that it is important to note that all HIV vaccine candidates tested in Rwanda and worldwide do not contain HIV and can therefore not cause HIV infection in those who receive them.
Dr Nyombayire however says that there are challenges, mostly related to the virus itself, that make the search for a vaccine difficult. He also further reiterated that the latest science that PSF has participated in has provided useful insights on how the virus behaves during and shortly after infection as well how the body responds to the infection at its earliest stages and these findings are crucial to vaccine development.
Another challenge is continuous decreased funding in the HIV vaccine development field. HIV vaccine trials are very expensive and it is critical to keep the momentum we have currently in order to sustain stakeholders and policy makers interest for this cause as well mobilizing domestic funding from countries that are mostly affected by the pandemic. Dr Nyombayire mentioned that HIV vaccine research could not have been possible in Rwanda without support from the highest level government leadership. PSF have always benefited from the strong support from H.E the President of Rwanda and the First Lady who have always demonstrated a strong commitment for the fight against AIDS and for HIV vaccine research to be conducted in Rwanda. The first ever national conference on HIV vaccines in Rwanda was launched by the President of Rwanda in 2003 and He has attended several other international HIV vaccine conferences. “This is quite unique and has made our journey in Rwanda special” Dr Nyombayire says.
In addition to raising awareness and educate communities on the need for an HIV vaccine, the HVAD provides a unique opportunity to celebrate and thank those who have dedicated their lives, career and work for this important cause and those who have participated voluntarily in HIV clinical trials. We want to express our sincere gratitude to the government of Rwanda, the Ministry of Health and the Rwanda Biomedical Center, Ethics and regulatory bodies, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative for making the Rwandan journey in the discovery of an HIV Vaccine possible and, last but not least, we thank several hundreds of Rwandans who participated in HIV vaccine trials conducted in our institution and without whom these clinical trials could not be possible” says Dr Nyombayire.
On the question to know if we will ever have a vaccine for HIV in the future, Dr Nyombayire concluded optimistically saying that “Research for vaccines generally takes a long time and this is especially challenging for HIV. Neither I nor any scientist in the field can tell when there will be an HIV vaccine available to the community. However, with the advancement that have been made to date in the field, we are more than optimistic that an HIV vaccine is possible!”