High hopes dashed: HIV vaccine made from GSK, Sanofi components flops massive study

Vaccine
Vaccine researchers in South Africa stopped a major HIV vaccine efficacy study for futility. (Guschenkova/iStockGettyImages)

In yet another setback for the troubled HIV vaccine field, researchers in South Africa stopped a massive efficacy study after a data monitoring committee found the vaccine wasn't working. 

The study, which started back in 2016 and tested a combination of vaccine components from GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi, enrolled about 5,400 sexually active men and women aged 18 to 35 throughout South Africa. The participants received either the vaccine or placebo, but, in late January, an independent data monitoring committee found the vaccine wasn't fending off infections, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports.

Overall, researchers tracked 129 infections in the vaccine group compared with 123 in the placebo arm.

It’s another major failure for the HIV vaccine research field and one backed by some high-profile players. The NIH and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation were among financial backers of the study, and two top vaccine players supplied the vaccines. 

RELATED: NIH, others launch 'historic' HIV trial with vaccines from GSK, Sanofi 

When the study started, NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci said the vaccine—if successful—could be a “final nail in the coffin for HIV" when combined with existing treatments. But now the failure has left researchers with another humbling lesson. 

The trial was also the first HIV vaccine efficacy study globally in seven years, following a prior trial in Thailand that resulted in a 31% efficacy figure. The team modified the vaccines for the South African study but couldn’t find success. 

RELATED: Immune responses from Johnson & Johnson's 'mosaic' HIV shot last 1 year: study 

Now, Johnson & Johnson is the furthest along with its HIV vaccine. Investigators plan to study that vaccine in men who have sex with men and transgender people in North and South America, plus Europe. The NIH is signed on to provide some funding support. Another test for the vaccine is underway in five countries in southern Africa. 

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