India's health ministry and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative have signed an agreement to accelerate efforts to develop and test an AIDS vaccine against HIV subtype C, the predominant strain in India.
Under the agreement, the initiative—which was set up in 1996 with money from UNAIDS (the joint United Nations programme on HIV and AIDS), individual governments, and private foundations—will invest several million dollars in the development of an AIDS vaccine in India. It will be similar to the modified vaccinia Ankara vaccine against HIV designed by researchers at the Medical Research Council human immunology unit in Oxford, but appropriate for use in India.
“Essentially, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative will facilitate the transfer of technology so India can acquire a vaccine based on the modified vaccinia Ankara vector,” Dr J V Prasada Rao, director of the National AIDS Control Organisation in India told the BMJ.
The initiative will fund the US company Therion Biologics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to design a recombinant vaccine based on the modified vaccinia Ankara vector and containing gene sequences cloned by Indian scientists from HIV subtype C in India.
Most research on AIDS vaccines until now has been directed towards HIV subtype B, the predominant strain in North America and Europe. HIV subtype C accounts for 84% of HIV strains in India.
India has 3.8 million people infected with HIV. The Indian government had first signalled its intention to join global efforts to develop an AIDS vaccine in 1998 and had launched independent efforts to develop indigenous AIDS vaccines.
“Multiple strategies for AIDS vaccines is still considered the most appropriate route for India,” said Dr Virender Vinayak, medical adviser to India's department of biotechnology. But no indigenous vaccine is close to clinical trials yet.
The proposed recombinant modified vaccinia Ankara vaccine is expected to stimulate the production of HIV specific immune cells that will kill cells infected with HIV. Project officials say that it will be ready for phase I clinical trials in India within the next two years.
Last year the Medicines Control Agency in the United Kingdom approved phase I testing of a modified vaccinia Ankara vaccine against HIV subtype A, the most common strain in Kenya.
Scientists from the Indian Council of Medical Research will jointly work on the new vaccine. Under Indian law, no new drug or vaccine can be tested in India unless it has already been tested in its country of origin or has been developed in collaboration with Indian researchers.
Indian policymakers say that a vaccine developed in India or in collaboration with Indian researchers is likely to be effective in India and could potentially be manufactured more cheaply in this country.