Journalists urged to dispel myths on vaccine trials in Africa

By Mike MwanikI I 

A leading HIV investigator in Kenya has urged journalists to be at the forefront in dispelling the existing myths and misconceptions on vaccine trials among people living in African countries. 

Prof Omu Anzala described as a “fallacy” allegations by some unscrupulous people — especially on social media — who are peddling claims that Africans are being targeted as “guinea pigs” by the West during such trials. 

The virologist-cum-immunologist was speaking during a webinar held in May titled “Understanding the Role of Africa in COVID-19 Vaccine Research.” 

The virtual meeting, which was co-organized by IAVI; Media for Environment, Science, Health, and Agriculture (MESHA), and Internews attracted African-based journalists and scientists and was moderated by MESHA’s secretary, Aghan Daniel. 

“As a professional, I feel sad when people make such wild, unsubstantiated claims and allegations when diseases such as cervical cancer, malaria, and Ebola continue killing a majority of our people in the continent,” Prof Anzala observed. 

“I have been conducting HIV clinical trials for over 20 years and I reassure you that vaccines are highly regulated and cannot, therefore, cause major adverse effects (to recipients). As Africans, we should steer away from such negativity,” he noted.

Prof Anzala is one of the founders of the Kenya Aids Vaccine Initiative (KAVI)—Institute of Clinical Research (KAVI-ICR) which was established in 2001 where he serves as the current director. He was Co-Principal Investigator (PI) of the first HIV vaccine trial in Kenya—the second in Africa—using a DNA plasmid. 

According to the virologist, a recent study shows that 90 percent of health workers in Kenya are ready to be enrolled in testing for a COVID-19 vaccine safety if such a request was made to them. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation— which is the biggest funder of vaccines in the world—says that by April 9, 2020, 115 different COVID19 vaccine candidates were in the development pipeline “with eight to 10 of those looking particularly promising.”

Prof Anzala says as the COVID-19 virus continues to mutate, African scientists also have a role to play in searching for solutions against the global pandemic which by July 6, 2020, had infected 11.6m people, killed nearly 537,000 with 6.27m others recovering. 

“The current precautionary measures to avoid COVID-19 infection through washing hands, social distancing and wearing masks in public places is just a stop-gap measure,” he warned.

“The only viable solution for the control of the virus is a vaccine as we are all susceptible to COVID-19,” added the Professor. 

Vaccines offer protection from disease or infection by eliciting a long-lasting immune response. Fielding questions from journalists, Prof Anzala urged African countries to combat coronavirus by establishing mechanisms and actions that will respond to the outbreak; establishing teams that will monitor the outbreak and fund research to understand COVID-19/SARS-COV2 evolution (by using locally gathered data to inform the response to the outbreak). 

Prof Anzala observed: “We are all learning as we go along. There are no experts (on the pandemic) as its only five months old”. 

At the same time, the virologist announced that Kenya will be among 70 countries that will participate in the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Solidarity clinical trial for COVID-19 treatments. Solidarity Trial is an international clinical trial to help find an effective treatment for COVID-19, launched by WHO and partners. It will compare for treatment options against the standard of care, to assess their relative effectiveness against COVID-19.


HIV vaccine: Scientists call for patience as research continues

Days after the most awaited HIV vaccine clinical trials was stopped, researchers say that there is still hope to get another a vaccine which will prevent HIV infection.
“The recent withdrawal a HIV vaccine, HVTN 702, clinical trial is not the end of finding an effective preventive HIV,” two scientists recently told us at a science media café called by the Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA).

Dr. Kundai Chinyenze, Executive Medical Director, International Aids Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), clarified that the HVTN 702 vaccine, also known as Uhambo, was stopped due to its inefficiency in preventing HIV infection.
As journalists, we had somehow become enchanted by this news which we had received a few days earlier. We did actually think that scientists were still on it but were not very sure what researches were going on around us.
In her address to us, together with her colleague, Prof Omu Anzala of KAVI and University of Nairobi,
Dr. Chinyenze dispelled any fears in us in regards to the stopped vaccine clarifying that the study posed no safety concerns to the volunteers who were under trial.
She said that even though HTVN 702 study had failed and disappointed not only researchers but also donors and the community who had hopes in its success, there are a number of other HIV vaccines under trial and scientists are still working tirelessly towards developing vaccines in a bid to find a solution in curbing the infectious disease.
“As much as it is disappointing to have lost money and time, the HVTN 702 was just one among many other HIV vaccine trials that scientists have been working on and so this does not mean that it is the end of vaccine trials,” added Dr. Chinyenze. She observed that there are novel vaccines that have different mechanisms of action that are in earlier phases of testing.
Prof. Omu Anzala of KAVI and the Institute of Clinical Research (ICR) based at the University of Nairobi mentioned that they have learnt a lot following the failed vaccine in South Africa and that here in Kenya, they at KAVI in collaboration with partners in USA and Canada are working on Antibody Mediated Prevention (AMP) study and HVTN 706, also known as Mosaic.
“We scientists are still in pursuit of a safe and globally effective preventive HIV vaccine and other global efforts underway include HVTN 703 and HVTN 704 and HVTN 705 also known as Imbokodo, whose results are expected later this year 2020,” Prof. Anzala said, adding that there is no need to give up on ever finding an AIDS vaccine.
He however lamented over decline in funding towards research on HIV but was quick to state that this will not stop any efforts they are putting forward in finding a safe and effective safe vaccine.
“As we await an effective vaccine, we must understand the epidemic and establish a tool which will help in finding out who are getting infected and reach out to them,” he observed.

“People who are at risk of HIV infection should make use of PrEP and everyone should embrace test and treat as prevention measures to avoid new infections and spread of the virus – patients who are already positive must adhere to treatment,” said Prof Anzala.
That national Institute of off Allergy and Infectious diseases (NIAID) on February 3, 2020 stopped administration of HVTN 702 vaccine after Independent Data and Safety Monitoring Board (DSMB) found that it was not effective.
The HVTN 702 study funded at USD 130 million was launched in 2016 and it enrolled 5,407 HIV negative volunteers at 14 sites across South Africa. The volunteers randomly received six injections of the investigational vaccine or placebo for over 18 months.