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Indian HIV
vaccine trial enters follow-up stage

Indian HIV
vaccine trial enters follow-up stage

India has put a group of volunteers on a yearlong watch after giving them a trial vaccine against HIV, marking a key phase in the search for a drug to prevent infection with the virus, a scientist said on Thursday.

Home to the second largest number of people living with HIV after South Africa, India started giving the vaccine to 30 healthy volunteers in varying doses from February last year.

"The trials have entered the follow-up stage, where they will be observed," says R.S. Paranjape, deputy director of the National AIDS Research Institute.

A vaccine for the developing world, where antiretroviral drugs are either unavailable or too expensive for millions of HIV-infected people, would be the ultimate prize in the fight against AIDS.

But efforts to find one have been hampered by the virus's ability to mutate, scientists say.

"We will begin collecting data from the volunteers after one year from this month," Paranjape said, adding that similar trials in Belgium and Germany have completed the yearlong study and are waiting for the Indian scientists to catch up.

"Once the follow-up stage is over, data from volunteers in these three countries will be collated and decoded to study the result," Paranjape said.

The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, which coordinates the global search for a vaccine, says India is important because of its advanced biomedical research facilities and a strong pharmaceutical industry, which has developed cheap and effective anti-HIV drugs that are exported across the world.

India is also working on a second vaccine--called the Modified Vaccinia Ankara--that will target HIV subtype C.

The world's second most populous country has an official HIV caseload of more than 5 million people, and experts say that the number could quadruple by 2010, as many people are still reluctant to discuss safe sex openly. Many experts say the true infection rate may be far higher than government figures suggest. Many Indians cannot afford antiretroviral drugs, which cost 1,300 rupees ($29.40 U.S.) a month.

Human trials of vaccines against various strains of the HIV virus are being conducted in the United States, Europe, and Africa. (Reuters)

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