AIDS researchers must step up collaboration following the failure last month of a key experimental HIV vaccine, the new head of a global group coordinating the hunt for an effective shot said on Thursday.
Merck & Co, which had been working with the U.S. government-funded HIV Vaccine Trials Network, halted testing of its vaccine because it did not prevent subjects becoming infected in a clinical trial.
It was long considered one of the most promising vaccines in development and the failure was a major blow to the global effort to stem infections with the virus that causes AIDS.
Alan Bernstein, the founding president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, who has now been appointed first executive director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, said the setback underlined the need for cooperation to speed up vaccine work.
Bernstein's job as head of the group — which has a new secretariat in New York — is to bring together academics, drugmakers, governments and regulators to work on a common strategy.
"This trial was yet another eye-opener for the need for the Enterprise," he said in a telephone interview from Cape Town.
"We need a mechanism for everybody from scientists to volunteers to get around the table and talk and agree on a common way forward," he said.
"The AIDS challenge is too important for anybody to say they have a right — whether it's public or private money — to keep things secret."
Around 40 million people worldwide are living with HIV and nearly 5 million are newly infected every year. But making a vaccine against HIV has proved extremely difficult because the virus mutates rapidly and it infects the very immune system cells that are usually stimulated by a vaccine.
Bernstein said the failure of the Merck vaccine was a blow but he cautioned against reading too much into the setback.
"It's a mistake to put all our eggs in one basket and think one trial is make-or-break for the field. I don't think that's the case in science," he said.
Merck's vaccine aimed to stimulate the body's killer T-cells to attack HIV-infected cells. The more conventional strategy, stimulating antibodies, has proved very difficult with HIV.
In future, a twin-track approach may be needed to exploit both arms of the immune system, Bernstein believes.
The Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, which was set up with money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has to date mobilized $750 million in support of its scientific plan.