While in South Africa, USAID Deputy Administrator Paloma Adams-Allen announced that the Agency awarded a contract to South African Medical Research Council for HIV vaccine research and development, creating opportunities for scientists across sub-Saharan Africa to be at the forefront of innovation.
After nearly 40 years of the global search for a preventive HIV vaccine and more than two decades of investments by USAID toward this goal, the Agency is proud to support sub-Saharan African scientists, institutions, collaborators to design and test improved HIV vaccine candidates.
The announcement comes at a pivotal moment in our work to end HIV as a public health threat by 2030. The U.S. government’s pursuit of an HIV vaccine has been made possible by PEPFAR, and its reauthorization is critical to continue to push for innovation in the HIV fight.
Deputy Administrator Paloma Adams-Allen details more about the announcement in her column for Business Day, published September 21.
Partnering for an Aids-free Africa
By USAID Deputy Administrator Paloma Adams-Allen
The complex challenges we tackle at the United States Agency for International Development are global in scope, but the effects are felt locally, in communities and neighborhoods and homes. I’ve been in South Africa this week to get an up-close look at how the U.S. government’s work through USAID is advanced with local partners—those who possess the knowledge and expertise to advance progress in their communities. One of the greatest examples of locally-led development is in South Africa, where the scientific community is on the cusp of developing a vaccine to prevent HIV.
In 2003, UNAIDS and the World Health Organization estimated that up to 45 million people around the world were infected with HIV. And even though the first treatment that stopped AIDS from multiplying had been discovered more than a decade earlier, only 50,000 people across Africa had access. That year, more than two million people died of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa alone.
In response, through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the United States began to invest in HIV prevention, testing, care and treatment services, working alongside local, community-based organizations to tackle the crisis. We’ve come a long way since then. In 2022 alone, PEPFAR funding through USAID supported more than 2.1 million South Africans on antiretroviral therapy.
USAID’s partnerships with local organizations and health care providers are the driving force behind these results. In fact, more than 80 percent of USAID’s health funding in South Africa is implemented through South African organizations. That means our programs to improve life expectancy and quality of life, including HIV prevention and treatment, are designed by South Africans.
Just like so many of the threats we face cannot be confined to the borders of any one country, our investments and partnerships don’t simply benefit communities across Africa. With USAID and PEPFAR support, a world-class scientific community across the African continent has played a critical role in averting and combating major global health crises, from snuffing out Ebola in 2014, to the early identification of SARS-CoV-2 viral variants, to leading vast and complex COVID-19 vaccine trials, which were implemented rapidly and surpassed global standards. And in the face of widespread vaccine hesitancy and misinformation, there are clear advantages to having African investigators, regulatory agencies, and even manufacturers at the forefront of these efforts to enhance trust in their respective communities.
Over the last two decades, PEPFAR’s work to strengthen local health systems has built significant momentum. But to develop an effective, accessible, low-cost HIV vaccine that transforms our approach to sustainably controlling the virus, we must ensure that African scientists and institutions are the ones leading the design and testing of vaccine candidates. To eliminate HIV/AIDS as a public health threat by 2030, partners in aid, development practitioners, and donors must all work together to shift power to local actors.
This is a moment for USAID to walk the walk on local leadership. For the first time, USAID will invest up to $45 million over five years directly with a local partner, South African Medical Research Council, for HIV vaccine research and development. This award—called HIV Vaccine Innovation, Science, Technology Acceleration in Africa (HIV-VISTA)—will provide even more opportunities for scientists across sub-Saharan Africa to advance HIV vaccine research and development and leverage the lessons learned from decades of U.S. government investments.
Consider the impact of this work being led from right here in South Africa, and in collaboration with scientists in Uganda, Nigeria, and across sub-Saharan Africa. Almost two-thirds of new HIV infections occur in sub-Saharan Africa, making it critical that the scientists and institutions leading the design and testing of vaccine candidates understand the region, its people, and their preferences and behaviors.
This new project led by the South African Medical Research Council will broaden the field of partners and allow for greater leveraging of local resources, creative collaborations, and innovative science, which may be the source of a real breakthrough toward a safe and effective HIV vaccine. Adding new scientific thinking and talent to the established expertise in this field not only strengthens our chances of success in the fight against HIV—it strengthens global health security for us all.
For more than two decades, PEPFAR and USAID have been pushing the limits on the HIV/AIDS journey—to extraordinary results. And we simply can’t slow down. To continue to keep an HIV vaccine in our sights, we must invest in and empower local partners in this work.
During my time in South Africa, I had the chance to visit with South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) CEO and President, Dr. Glenda Gray. Dr. Gray began her career in pediatrics in 1993, when HIV prevalence was surging in South Africa and across the region. In less than two decades, Dr. Gray and her colleagues worked to cut the mother-to-child transmission rate in South Africa to under 2 percent, bringing pediatric HIV under control.
I look forward to returning to South Africa soon to see this next generation of investments in action and even more life saving progress from the researchers at the SAMRC.