KAVI is one of several institutions studying the possibility of a Covid-19 vaccine.
Kenya has turned to local institutions with experience in HIV vaccines to find solutions to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.
The Primates Research Institute (IPR), a public body, and the Kenya Aids Vaccine Initiative (KAVI) at the University of Nairobi have more than 30 years of experience in developing HIV vaccines.
Twenty years ago, KAVI launched the first AIDS vaccine trial in Kenya, the first specifically designed to fight an African strain of the virus. When he failed four years later, KAVI director Omu Anzala, who was a key investigator for the trial, said the country had achieved huge research and development capabilities for vaccines.
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“This may be a temporary setback, but we have built a huge research capacity and human skills that could benefit Kenya in the future,” Professor Anzala told reporters.
As the world celebrates World AIDS Vaccine Day today, KAVI is one of several institutions studying the possibility of a Covid-19 vaccine.
“Our institutions, including the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) and IPR are involved in the search for a vaccine, and we will keep you informed,” said President Uhuru Kenyatta last month.
“The government is currently helping us set up the Covid-19 test and a research center to first understand the virus. This knowledge will assist in the diagnosis as well as the development of a possible vaccine, “said Dr. Hastings Ozwara, director of DPI, The Standard.
The institute is the first in Africa to develop a local, scientifically tested microbicide – a substance applied inside the vagina or rectum to reduce the transmission of sexually transmitted infections – that kills HIV. The microbicide is ready for phase one human clinical trials.
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If the trials are successful, Kenya will be the first country in the world to bring an effective HIV microbicide to the market.
The product, Unipron, in which the government has invested 200 million shillings, has been in development for 13 years. “Without the current Covid-19 disruption, we had hoped to complete the next phase within three to five years,” said Unipron principal investigator Peter Gichuhi Mwethera.
According to Dr Mwethera, the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly in the manufacturing and distribution of medical supplies, has highlighted the need for Africa to develop its own research and manufacturing capabilities.
“For example, even if a Covid-19 vaccine is manufactured today, Africa is likely to get a share long after the rest of the world,” he said.
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Currently Unipron for Research and its by-product, a lubricant, are manufactured by a local pharmaceutical company, one of which is certified by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Unipron is one of two HIV prevention products currently being evaluated in Kenya.
Last year, KAVI launched clinical trials for a new HIV vaccine that could stop the virus from infecting cells. “The trial will seek to answer questions about the safety of the vaccine and its ability to stimulate the human body to produce antibodies that can neutralize HIV,” said Professor Anzala.
A member of Covid-19’s National Emergency Response Committee, Anzala has supervised more than a dozen HIV vaccine trials and says her team is not about to give up. “A vaccine is the only way to end HIV once and for all,” he said.
Experts say developing a vaccine is difficult, time-consuming and costly work, requiring regional and international collaboration.
Medical experts believe that a cure for HIV is now possible at an affordable price.
At a global online virus conference in March this year, a team from Harvard University in the United States reported that they had eliminated HIV from the experimental monkeys.
Although the same drug, vesatolimod, was less successful when tested in HIV patients, the researchers said it had indicated that a cure for the virus was finally possible.
In another study, Joseph Casazza of the United States National Institutes of Health reported progress in the development of a preventive and curative HIV vaccine. The vaccine was successfully tested in monkeys and administered to eight HIV-positive human volunteers who will be followed for five years.
There are more than one million Kenyans living with HIV.
Currently, the only HIV prevention available is the condom and the daily HIV prevention pill (PreP) used by 56,000 Kenyans.
In the current year of HIV funding, the President’s emergency plan to fight AIDS aims to increase that figure to 113,727 PreP users.