Kenya AIDS Vaccine Initiative Marks 10-year Anniversary

It was 10 years ago that the Kenya AIDS Vaccine Initiative (KAVI) became involved in the search for an AIDS vaccine. But the seeds of this organization, which is headquartered at the University of Nairobi and was created by local researchers with funding from IAVI and the Medical Research Council’s Human Immunology Unit at Oxford University, were planted much earlier. In the early 1980s, a number of Kenyan scientists—in partnership with researchers from the University of Manitoba—started to notice that a small percentage of commercial sex workers remained HIV uninfected over time despite repeat exposure to HIV (see VAX September 2008 Spotlight article, Individual armor against HIV).

Three leading Kenyan scientists involved in this research helped establish KAVI in 1999—Professor Omu Anzala, KAVI’s Program Director; Professor Walter Jaoko, Deputy Program Director of KAVI; and the late Professor Job Bwayo, a co-founder of KAVI, who was tragically killed in 2007. “Until KAVI, vaccine research had never really been carried out in this country,” says Anzala. “KAVI really raised a lot of community awareness to make people understand that vaccines just don’t fall from heaven.”

When KAVI was first established, some people were skeptical that an institution of this kind in Kenya would be able to meet the “level and standards” needed to conduct clinical trials, according to Anzala. But he says KAVI has not only met those standards, but raised the bar, both scientifically and ethically.

KAVI has been a productive partner in vaccine research and development, conducting four Phase I trials and a Phase IIa trial of a clade A HIV-DNA/modified vaccinia Ankara prime-boost candidate at Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) in Nairobi. KAVI is also participating in an IAVI-sponsored project known as Protocol G, which seeks to find broadly neutralizing antibodies—Y-shaped molecules that can latch onto and neutralize HIV—from HIV-infected individuals.

To mark its 10-year anniversary, KAVI is hosting a scientific forum, “Emerging Vaccines: A Public Health Priority” on March 26. The forum will highlight efforts to develop vaccines against HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and human papilloma virus. Key guests include IAVI President Seth Berkley; Andrew McMichael, director of Oxford’s Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine; and Adrian Hill, an investigator at Oxford’s Jenner Institute. KAVI will also recognize the work of its community stakeholders on World AIDS Vaccine Day, which is observed annually on May 18.

While a primary goal is testing AIDS vaccine candidates, Anzala says KAVI also has the capacity to test preventive vaccines for malaria and tuberculosis, and he hopes KAVI can broaden its scope to include more basic research. Anzala says talks are underway to establish a mentorship program for young investigators to come work at KAVI. “The virus is here, the patients are here,” says Anzala. “We must be able to also begin to engage in basic research.” —By Regina McEnery


 The Kenya AIDS Vaccine Initiative (KAVI), launched 10 years ago, has been an important player in clinical research of AIDS vaccine candidates. Shown above is the late Professor Job Bwayo, a KAVI co-founder, speaking at an HIV Vaccine Awareness Day event in Nairobi in 2004