By Professor Omu Anzala, Programme Director of the Kenya AIDS Vaccine Initiative (KAVI) at the University of Nairobi, which recently began enrolling participants in two clinical trials examining the safety and immunogenicity of HIV vaccine candidates. He is also Chair of the University of Nairobi’s Department of Medical Microbiology and an advisor to the African AIDS Vaccine Program (AAVP), the African Childhood Vaccine Program, and the National Polio Eradication Expert Committee.
I was very glad last month to hear Administrator Rajiv Shah describe USAID’s deep commitment to sustainable development and building country-led health systems. These principles characterize USAID’s impact in Kenya, where USAID has supported the Kenya AIDS Vaccine Initiative (KAVI) through our partnership with the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI).
Here in Kenya, our people and our resources have been drained by three decades of HIV/AIDS. We are grateful for all that PEPFAR and the Global Fund have done to make antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) accessible and affordable in our country. At the same time, the existing prevention, treatment, and care available are simply not enough to stop the epidemic. We need new and more effective prevention strategies, and, more fundamentally, we need to build a sustainable, national response to HIV specifically and to grow our country’s capacity to develop scientific solutions to our health problems more generally. We are accomplishing all of this with the assistance of USAID.
In 1999, we established KAVI with IAVI, the University of Nairobi, and the UK Medical Research Council. KAVI ran the first clinical trial of an HIV vaccine candidate in Kenya, and another four early-stage clinical trials since then. We participated in the study that led to the discovery of broadly neutralizing HIV antibodies—an advance which is crucial to AIDS vaccine research.
But our work has not only contributed to the development of a desperately needed HIV vaccine, which is the only way to stop AIDS once and for all. It has also strengthened our country in many ways. Working closely with the Kenyan government and with support from USAID through IAVI, we have built state-of-the-art laboratories and clinical facilities and trained first-rate Kenyan scientists and technicians. As a result, KAVI-KNH (Kenyatta National Hospital) was among the first laboratories in Africa to win the stringent Good Clinical Laboratory Practice (GCLP) accreditation. We have increased our capacity for basic research in HIV immunology. IAVI provided a liquid nitrogen production plant and helped train teams to produce this frozen gas that is essential to process and analyze samples on site. At Kilifi, we constructed a family clinic that provides ARVs for HIV-positive individuals and at Mtwapa free counseling and support services. Volunteers in our clinical trials receive healthcare and family planning services. The Expanded Community Outreach program supports vaccine and research literacy, and trains peer leaders to inform their communities about HIV prevention and AIDS vaccine development.
What USAID invests in building country-led health systems can produce not just extraordinary breakthroughs in health research but also independence, sustainable capacity, and opportunity in the world’s poorest countries. Administrator Shah’s commitment to “advancing science, technology and innovation aimed directly at improving human welfare” will yield a healthier, more secure world.