About the Author: Margaret M. McCluskey, RN, MPH, is the Senior Technical Advisor for HIV Vaccines in the Research Division of USAID’s Office of HIV & AIDS
This HIV Vaccine Awareness Day — May 18 — marks 25 years since President Bill Clinton committed the United States to develop an HIV vaccine.
In keeping with Administrator Power’s recent challenge to all USAID staff to serve as global advocates and thought leaders for the localization agenda, this year USAID salutes the many African scientists, clinicians, lab and community engagement staff, and local communities who make HIV vaccine research possible on the African continent. Since 2001, USAID has supported international partners at the forefront of the global effort to design, develop, and test various candidate HIV vaccines, while progressively supporting African partners to take the lead.
USAID’s HIV vaccine research and development (R&D) portfolio has consistently and intentionally focused on strengthening the capacity of African scientists and institutions. The centerpiece of this portfolio encourages young and mid-career African scientists to gain knowledge in advanced immunology, virology, microbiology, and lab techniques to interpret complex immune responses to experimental HIV vaccines. USAID’s Office of HIV/AIDS has long recognized the importance of transitioning HIV Vaccine R&D support to local partners. Aligned with the Biden Administration’s priorities within the Global Health Worker Initiative and the USAID Administrator’s bold and ambitious vision for how the Agency can propel locally-led development toward sustainable impact, we are actively engaging on multiple fronts with partners who are focused on localization around the discovery of an HIV vaccine.
Despite significant progress in controlling HIV through the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the world still needs new biomedical tools including a safe and effective HIV vaccine to prevent HIV and sustainably control the HIV pandemic. For this long-term effort to be cost-effective and equitable, it is critical that scientists and institutions in African countries with high HIV incidence play a leading role in designing and testing vaccine candidates while developing an in-depth understanding of relevant immune responses in African populations. Under USAID’s Accelerate the Development of Vaccines and New Technologies to Combat the AIDS Epidemic (ADVANCE) project, there are several activities to specifically improve the trajectories of African scientists in the search for the ultimate tool to end the HIV epidemic and support new leaders. Two examples follow:
- Investigator-Initiated Research (IIR): IIRs are designed to strengthen sustainable human capacity and institutional capability for high-quality research. The IIR program strives to provide career development opportunities for early- to mid-career scientists through funding for their original research. These funding awards are offered through a competitive call for proposals that are open to all IAVI partners, known as clinical research centers. Additionally, to foster mentorship of early-career investigators by more seasoned researchers, the IIR offers a grant for innovative and collaborative research. The IIR awards have resulted in everything from young and mid-level scientists successfully competing and winning new funding for their research, to accepting prestigious African University faculty appointments.
- The Leadership Development Program (LDP): The LDP is building a new cadre of promising leaders within the ADVANCE network who will be uniquely equipped to lead HIV vaccine discovery. The LDP highlights USAID’s commitment to supporting local partners by fostering a core group of researchers and scientists in African and Indian institutions who are contributing to the global effort to develop, evaluate, and implement HIV biomedical prevention products. This skills-based, on-the-job leadership program also contributes to the sustainability of USAID partners beyond the duration of the ADVANCE project by equipping mid-career scientists, clinicians, and public health experts with the skills required to manage complex programs in vaccine R&D, and attract new funding. The program includes an integrated curriculum with an emphasis on developing technical, management, communication, and team-building skills. Individual career planning and personalized coaching are also components, including structured mentorship where science experts are matched with LDP trainees. The program also features skills building in grant writing and technical support, preparing African scientists to play meaningful roles in setting the research agenda in the context of their local realities.
These two programs facilitate the shift of leadership to African investigators, making space for the research to be driven by Africans, for Africa, and are made possible through USAID’s cooperative agreement with IAVI.
At the behest of the United States Congress, USAID has ardently pursued a safe and effective preventive HIV vaccine, which is inextricably connected with USAID’s humanitarian priorities and sustainable development goals. Believing that the Global South can lead these efforts is squarely aligned with Administrator Power’s challenge: “If we truly want to make aid inclusive, local voices need to be at the center of everything we do. We‘ve got to tap into the knowledge of local communities, and their lived experiences.” Going forward, USAID envisions our African colleagues will lead in the design, implementation, and analysis of HIV vaccine immunogens and trials while participating more fully in the preclinical design of innovative HIV vaccine concepts. We’ll get to a vaccine capable of preventing HIV eventually - together