Participants in the AIDSVAX study will receive seven inoculations over a 30-month period. To test the efficacy of the vaccine, however, one in three volunteers will be given placebos.
If this works, they will be remembered as heroes: The first 150 of 5,000 American volunteers were yesterday injected with AIDSVAX, an anti-HIV vaccine in Phase III clinical trials -- the step preceding FDA approval. The vaccine, developed by VaxGen, uses gp120, one of the unique proteins coating the surface of the virus, to stimulate the human immune system to recognize and fight HIV. "Even though there are some doubts over this vaccine, you have to start somewhere," says TIME science correspondent Christine Gorman. "It's proved incredibly difficult to create a vaccine that's both safe and effective. This one is certainly safe; now we have to see whether it's effective." AIDSVAX is being tested on high-risk groups -- primarily gay men and people with HIV-positive partners -- in more than 30 U.S. cities, and will also be tried later in Thailand. The impact of a vaccine would be strongest in Africa: a U.N. report released today cited a 25 percent rate of HIV infection, and noted that of 30 million people carrying the virus last year, 21 million were in Africa. "We're not going to make any dent in the global epidemic without a vaccine," says Gorman.