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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

AIDS Vaccine Sparks Debate

WASHINGTON -- The first AIDS vaccine to be tested in people may offer more protection to blacks and Asians than to other groups, vaccine-maker VaxGen Inc. said Monday.

Long-awaited results from VaxGen's trial of AIDSVAX show the vaccine only reduced the rate of HIV infection by 3.8 percent in 5,400 men and women considered at high risk, VaxGen said in a statement.

Seth Berkley, president and CEO of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, called the announcement "disappointing."

When VaxGen's figures were analyzed closely, they showed that Asians and blacks who got the vaccine had a 67 percent lower rate of infection than those who got a placebo shot.

"There were 78 percent fewer HIV infections among black volunteers who received vaccine compared to placebo recipients," the Brisbane, California-based company added in a statement.

The company said it hoped this might be a first step toward fighting a virus that has killed 28 million people worldwide and infects 40 million now.

"This is the first time we have specific numbers to suggest that a vaccine has prevented HIV infection in humans," Phillip Berman, VaxGen's senior vice president of research and development, said in the statement.

There were only 314 blacks and a total of 498 blacks and Asians in the trial, so the numbers are difficult to interpret. But they offer enough hope for the company to continue development of the vaccine, said Lance Gordon, chief executive of VaxGen.

"We intend to continue development of this vaccine through licensure, including additional studies as necessary, for use in groups in which the vaccine demonstrated a significant reduction in infection," Gordon said. "In parallel, we will continue our work on the vaccine to make it more broadly effective."

VaxGen started its trial of AIDSVAX in 1998, giving volunteers seven injections over three years. It said 5,009 got at least three injections and Monday's release was based on those volunteers. Of those, 3,330 got the vaccine and 1,679 got placebo jabs.

There had been serious doubts about how effective the vaccine would be. Many researchers believe the AIDS virus is unique because of the way it infects the immune system and cannot be battled using standard vaccine technology.

VaxGen is the first company to try. Its trial of 5,000 men and women in the United States and the Netherlands at high risk of becoming infected with HIV has been running since 1998.

At least 30 other AIDS vaccines are in various stages of development.