Human Trials Begin in the U.S for Possible AIDS Vaccine

1998: Human trials begin in the U.S. for possible AIDS vaccines. Despite 10 years of vaccine developments, the trial results have been disappointing and the prospect of an AIDS vaccine remains elusive.

VaxGen began large-scale tests of its AidsVax in 1998, recruiting 5,400 subjects. The trial was launched amid excitement among investors but incredulity among many Aids experts.

“The whole thing was ridiculous,” said Dr Robert Gallo, co-dicoverer of HIV, last week. “I don’t know of a serious scientist in the world who would have expected this to work.”

Nevertheless, AidsVax was launched by medical entrepreneurs fronted by Dr Donald Francis, a former employee of the US government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Francis, who grossed nearly £4.5m from VaxGen in its first three years, was backed by his old government employer, which gave the trial £5m and helped the firm to brush aside high-level opposition.

This summer, San Francisco-based researchers launch the first global AIDS vaccine trials -- a medical step forward which is nonetheless rich in moral dilemmas. It's one of the most promising developments in the war on AIDS, and one of the most ethically challenging, as researchers seek uninfected but vulnerable participants.

Vaxgen Inc. has devised a three-year study in which participants will be counseled around 15 times.

"In the U.S., it'll be over 5,000 men who have sex with men and women who have sex partners who are HIV positive," says Vaxgen's Dan Reiner.

One out of every three will get a placebo. In trials among 2,500 needle users in Thailand, placebo and vaccine will be divided evenly.