“It is men who have multiple sexual partners and do not test who spread HIV”

Paloma Adams-Allen (Deputy Administrator of the USAID) , Prof Glenda Gray (SAMRC President and CEO) and Reuben Brigety (United States Ambassador to South Africa). Picture: SUPPLIED

Paloma Adams-Allen (Deputy Administrator of the USAID) , Prof Glenda Gray (SAMRC President and CEO) and Reuben Brigety (United States Ambassador to South Africa). Picture: SUPPLIED

Published Oct 7, 2023


“We’re getting closer to the HIV cure”.

So said Professor Glenda Gray, from the South African Research Council (SAMRC), in response to the $45 million (R867 million) grant awarded by The US Agency for International Development (USAID)to implement a programme called “HIV Vaccine Innovation, Science, and Technology Acceleration in Africa (HIV-VISTA).”

Gray, who will be leading the programme, said the grant was awarded through a competitive process in which the sub-Saharan African (SSA) region emerged victorious.

“Researchers in countries such as Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, South Africa, and so many more are part and parcel of this momentous stride in finding the cure for HIV & Aids,” she said.

Gray said the difficulty with finding the HIV cure is the dynamic nature of the virus.

“Imagine something like an envelope. The virus then hides in various places inside the envelope. It differs from person to person, and so there can never be a linear and clear consensus as to where the virus hides. It changes all the time,” she said.

Though there have been numerous unsuccessful previous attempts to find a cure, Gray is optimistic that this research will yield positive results.

“This is a five year research project, and from now until September next year, we will be conducting extensive research. Thereafter, we will be doing annual tests on the vaccine. We are moving forward in making progress with regards to treatment and prevention programmes, but the issue lies in accessing people to receive the treatment. If we do not get this right, we will have a never ending pandemic that is HIV/Aids,” she said.

Gray expressed concern about over 50% of women globally contracting HIV and Aids, as revealed in recent HIV data, and 63% of all new infections in SA, where there are twice as many young women as men between the ages of 15-24 already living with HIV.

“The issue is that women are more vulnerable to HIV due to patriarchy and GBV. It can be said that women are getting HIV transmission from men, men who have multiple sexual partners and who do not get tested. It is largely women who access health facilities and check their status,” she said.

Gray said KwaZulu Natal was still leading with the highest number of HIV cases, followed by the Eastern Cape, Gauteng, Free State, and then the Western Cape.

The South African Medical Association (SAMA) said HIV/Aids remains a major public health challenge in South Africa and Africa as a whole and is a significant healthcare burden in South Africa.

“The development of vaccines, both preventive and therapeutic, is a vital step in addressing this epidemic and its associated consequences on healthcare, poverty, and overall societal well-being. The impact of increased patient volumes needing care and treatment strains the healthcare system's resources and capacity. Treating HIV/Aids patients, providing antiretroviral therapy, and managing related health issues can be costly, contributing to rising healthcare expenditure. HIV/Aids can exacerbate poverty in affected communities, as individuals may become too ill to work and support their families, leading to economic hardships. Developing preventive vaccines to stop new infections and therapeutic vaccines to control disease progression in infected patients is crucial in the fight against HIV/Aids.

‘’The SA Medical Association (SAMA) congratulates our colleagues at the SAMRC for the grant, and we have faith that the SAMRC experts will deliver the long-awaited vaccines that will contribute immensely to the health and wellbeing of South Africans and the rest of the continent,” SAMA said.

The Minister of Health, Dr Joe Phaahla, has welcomed the awarding of this grant as a significant milestone in the country's fight against this devastating disease.

“HIV/Aids has had a profound impact on the lives of countless individuals and communities in South Africa, and finding an effective vaccine is crucial to achieving a future free from the burden of this illness. This funding not only highlights the international community's commitment to eradicating HIV/Aids but also recognises the expertise and dedication of the SAMRC in the field of medical research.

‘’The SAMRC has a rich history of contributing to global health, and this funding will enable them to continue their groundbreaking work. We eagerly anticipate the outcomes of their research and hope that it brings us one step closer to a world where HIV/Aids is no longer a threat to public health. We commend USAID for their commitment to advancing research in the fight against HIV/Aids,” said Phaahla.