Big mining companies join vaccine maker for HIV trials in South Africa

viraxA small Australian biotech company has secured the help of the world's leading miners to fund clinical trials of its Aids vaccine in South Africa.

In the first programme of its kind, Virax, which is listed on the Australian stock exchange and plans to float on Aim next year, has set up a non-profit organisation for corporate donors with operations and interests in South Africa and other neighbouring countries, and whose workforces are affected by the disease.

Eight companies including Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton will fund the trials, expected to cost between $5m and $6m.

There are more than six million people with HIV/Aids in the country. The incidence of the disease varies - in KwaZulu-Natal, for example, up to 35% of the population is HIV positive, and 41% of those in the penal system have the virus.

Virax is developing a vaccine that suppresses HIV levels in the body and could be used at the very early stages of the disease to delay the need for antiretroviral treatment - the last option.

David Beames, the chief executive of Virax, which is about to start phase two trials of the vaccine in the US, said: "This will be the largest HIV-Aids trial in South Africa. We're going to enrol 140 patients and we're going to include some that have never been on antiretrovirals."

Doing the trials in South Africa meant the vaccine, if successful, would get to market there at least five years earlier than if the company stuck to the normal route of US and European trials, he said.

Dr Richard Gaunt, chief adviser on health at Rio Tinto, said this was the first time companies in South Africa had come together in this way. "South Africa is a very good place to do a study. The population is available, and Aids is one of the biggest issues there."

He added that if successful the vaccine would bridge the current gap between antiretroviral treatment, which is available but loses its potency as the virus mutates, and a cure for the disease, which is many years away.

Rio Tinto launched an HIV-Aids strategy in 2003 for its workers in countries where the prevalence of the disease in the population is more than 1%. This involves promoting awareness of HIV-Aids, as well as providing training, counselling, testing, and anti-retroviral treatment for employees and their life partners. Dr Gaunt said: "It is very important that we continue to do research on Aids otherwise we risk losing the race against the disease."

Mr Beames said that if the vaccine is a success and launches on the South African market Virax will seek funding through international financing facilities such as the Gates Foundation.

source - Guardian