SAMRC awarded a multi-million rand grant from USAID to develop and test novel HIV vaccines in Africa
Cape Town, South Africa | The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has awarded the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) more than US $45 million (approx. R867 million) through a competitive process to implement a programme called “HIV Vaccine Innovation, Science, and Technology Acceleration in Africa (HIV-VISTA).”
This follows a successful grant application led by SAMRC President and CEO, Prof Glenda Gray together with other leading scientists from across the continent. The SAMRC with partners in South Africa and seven other African countries responded to USAID’s Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) which sought applications from eligible organisations in African countries in a collaboration called the BRILLIANT (BRinging Innovation to cLinical and Laboratory research to end HIV In Africa through New vaccine Technology) consortium.
The BRILLIANT Consortium’s programme of research will focus on utilising the existing capacity, scientific talent, ingenuity and investments made in community engagement in research in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) to advance the HIV vaccine field through supporting activities in the following five interrelated areas:
- Partner with civil society advocates, affected communities including those affected by and people living with HIV/AIDS, policymakers, and communicators to advance sub-Saharan African-led HIV vaccine science
- Design and implement early-stage clinical trials of HIV vaccine immunogens,
- Conduct laboratory analyses on samples from trials and epidemiological studies,
- Test innovative preclinical HIV vaccine concepts, advancing the most promising candidates toward clinical trials,
- Strengthen systems of collaborations for HIV vaccine research in SSA and increase opportunities to advance the careers of promising sub-Saharan African scientists
To date, an HIV vaccine to sustainably control the HIV pandemic remains elusive. Despite the significant progress in combating HIV and achieving epidemic control, the most recent UNAIDS global analysis estimated that 1.3 million people became newly infected in 2022, with almost two-thirds of these new infections occurring in SSA. Women and girls accounted for 50% of these new infections globally, and 63% of all new infections in SSA, where there are twice as many young women as men between the ages of 15-24 already living with HIV. Other key populations who are very vulnerable to HIV infection but struggle to access treatment and prevention due to stigma and policies would benefit greatly from a vaccine.
While new biomedical tools, such as pre-exposure prophylaxis, offer promise for continuing to reduce HIV incidence, a safe and effective preventive HIV vaccine could enable a more profound, rapid, and cost-effective reduction than would be possible by employing already existing interventions. A safe, effective and affordable preventive vaccine remains a critical key to epidemic control. Since most new infections are occurring in SSA, it is critical that HIV vaccine candidates are designed to effectively neutralise viruses that are prevalent in this region.
The BRILLIANT Consortium aims to support SSA scientists, institutions, and innovative systems of collaboration in designing and testing improved HIV vaccine candidates that will advance the field toward the long-term goal of a safe and globally effective HIV vaccine. Communities are a central part of this work and are represented in all decision-making bodies of the programme.
The Minister of Health in South Africa, Dr Joe Phaahla has welcomed the awarding of this grant as a significant milestone in the country's fight against this devastating disease.
“HIV/AIDS has had a profound impact on the lives of countless individuals and communities in South Africa, and finding an effective vaccine is crucial to achieving a future free from the burden of this illness. This funding not only highlights the international community's commitment to eradicating HIV/AIDS but also recognises the expertise and dedication of the SAMRC in the field of medical research. The SAMRC has a rich history of contributing to global health, and this funding will enable them to continue their groundbreaking work. We eagerly anticipate the outcomes of their research and hope that it brings us one step closer to a world where HIV/AIDS is no longer a threat to public health. We commend USAID for their commitment to advancing research in the fight against HIV/AIDS,” says Dr Phaahla.
The SAMRC has been at the forefront of cutting-edge research and innovation to tackle the HIV epidemic. Over the past two decades, the organisation has funded as well as conducted groundbreaking research on HIV and related conditions. South African scientists collaborating with the SAMRC are ranked among the world’s best in all aspects of the HIV response, in the prevention of HIV infection from mother-to-child, the development of newer and safer drug regimens, and the health service delivery of antiretroviral treatment and preventions to name a few.
“We extend our heartfelt gratitude to the US government through USAID for their invaluable support in our mission to find an HIV Vaccine. This investment is not just a financial contribution; it's a beacon of hope for HIV vaccine discovery in Africa. Let us remember that each dollar invested in research is an investment in hope, an investment in healthier futures, and an investment towards a world free from the burden of HIV,” says Prof Gray.
Professor Nigel Garrett, Head of Vaccine and Pathogenesis Research, Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) comments: “USAID’s funding provides an immense opportunity for scientists based in Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique and South Africa to test vaccine immunogens that are being designed and developed in Africa and often originated through research with communities in the Region. The responsibility to deliver an effective HIV vaccine remains the ultimate challenge, but the HIV VISTA program will move us another step closer to that goal.”
The Director and CEO of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre and Health Foundation, Linda-Gail Bekker commented that “Africa has borne an enormous burden of the HIV epidemic and it is fitting that our continent plays a significant role in bringing an effective, affordable and accessible HIV vaccine to the world. Our scientists, clinicians, advocates and communities have played an important part in the HIV response to date and we are very excited to be able to carefully and efficiently utilise these resources to continue to make a global difference.”
Tian Johnson, Co-principal investigator of Community Engagement & Advocacy and founder of the African Alliance called for a great partnership between scientists and communities in this project. “The path that will lead us to an HIV Vaccine must be wide enough for scientists to walk side by side with communities – in all of our diversity. USAID’s support for this work responds to calls from communities across Africa to truly leave no one behind in this endeavour, for us to not only have a seat but a meaningful voice at the table.”
This funding opportunity is authorised under the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA) of 1961, as amended. The resulting awards will be subject to Cost Principles, Audit Requirements for Federal Awards; Standard Provisions for Non-U.S. Organisations, and the additional requirements noted in the Notice of funding opportunity.
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