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Research Literacy on a Plate: In-person HIV vaccines update for Zambian advocates

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Daisy Ouya
Chilufya Hampongo
Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Daisy is Communications Advisor, AVAC, and based in Kenya. Chilufya is a passionate advocate for biomedical HIV prevention and research and alumnus of the AVAC Fellows program.

What does the “HVTN” in HVTN 702 stand for? And why do some trials, such as the mosaic vaccine trial HVTN705/HPX2008, carry two interchangeable tags? Also, what’s a mosaic vaccine, and why was it developed? Where are the studies happening, and when can we expect results?

Research literacy for HIV prevention advocates involves clarifying these types of questions. Current and accurate knowledge about clinical trials allows an advocate to engage confidently in the clinical trial ecosystem, which includes researchers, communities, ethics boards, and even funders. A recent gathering was a reminder of how effective it can be to conduct these sessions in an informal, low-tech setting, to invest in their knowledge of HIV prevention science.

At an early evening gathering in February, AVAC staffers joined a group of 20 advocates in Lusaka, Zambia for a research literacy session on HIV vaccines, in particular the three HIV vaccine efficacy trials planned or underway in Africa: HVTN 702, HVTN 705/HPX 2008, and the PrEPVacc trial.

Gathered together around a table in the relaxed restaurant environment of a Lusaka hotel, with snacks in hand, attendees turned to paper handouts (no tech) and gave their attention to the two-hour training. The session covered a basic introduction to vaccine science and the research process, the naming of the clinical trials, trial populations and study timelines. Attendees delved into the composition of HIV vaccines, posed questions, and learned things like how various vectors deliver immunogens, often with adjuvants added to improve the body’s immune response to a candidate vaccine.

The group discussed why it’s been so challenging to develop a highly efficacious HIV vaccine, and the exciting work in the field of broadly neutralizing antibodies, or bNAbs for short. Interaction, questions, answers, and some digressions—the group detoured into a conversation about why young women in East and Southern Africa are especially vulnerable to HIV—all of which encouraged vibrant engagement with the material.

In addition to the science, discussions included a look at other issues relevant to clinical trials for HIV prevention. Advocates in Africa play a critical role in two key areas: pushing their governments to allocate more resources for research, and helping community stakeholders understand increasingly complex trial designs.

Participants declared the after-hours session a hit. They found the discussion on vaccine research “very informative” and “beneficial and interactive.”

Clever Chilende of the Treatment Advocacy and Literacy Campaign (TALC) said, “The environment was very relaxing and enabled maximum participation!”

Chilende is also a Community Advisory Board member for several HIV prevention clinical trials in Zambia. He said he would use the information gained from the training “to create awareness among our members in the community”, and called for further sessions to “look at how the research sites are engaging with various stakeholders in order to have their buy-in and improve community participation in the process.”

Henry Sakala from Zambia’s Friends of Rainka proposed future research literacy sessions covering rectal microbicide studies for gay men, and clinical trials on STI prevention.

Other topics attendees proposed were: Ethics in research; clinical trials involving adolescents; issues around vaccine-induced seropositivity; research on hormonal contraception and HIV risk; and community preparations for vaccine trials. All participants said “yes!” to attending a similar training in the future, and most of them said community engagement and partnership were cardinal to fostering support for research.

The same week in Lusaka, AVAC staff joined a meeting of Counselor Supervisor Officers (CSOs) working at IAVI-affiliated clinical research centers. This meeting provided an opportunity for a more formal research literacy talk covering HIV prevention trials broadly: vaccines, ARV-based prevention, antibody-mediated prevention, as well as the recently completed Evidence for Contraceptive Options and HIV Outcomes (ECHO) study. The upcoming open-label trials that will assess the use of oral PrEP and dapivirine ring in pregnant women (MTN-042 DELIVER, and MTN-043 B-PROTECTED), as well as the efficacy trials pipeline were discussed.

Dr. William Kilembe, Project Director of Zambia-Emory Research Initiative in Tuberculosis and TB/HIV (ZEHRP), joined both the advocates’ and CSO sessions. ZEHRP is one of the HVTN 705/HPX2008 vaccine trial sites in Zambia, and Dr Kilembe’s contribution grounded the discussion in details about how the study is being conducted, achievements, challenges, and community perceptions.

In case you’re still puzzling over the questions at the top:

  • “HVTN” stands for the HIV Vaccine Trial Network, the world’s largest publicly funded multi-disciplinary international collaboration facilitating the development of vaccines to prevent HIV/AIDS. The network collaborates with research institutions in over 30 cities on five continents, and is currently conducting the HIV vaccine efficacy trials HVTN 702 and HVTN 705/HPX2008.
  • HVTN 705/HPX2008, a clinical trial also known as Imbokodo, is underway in Malawi, Mozambique South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe, testing a mosaic HIV vaccine candidate designed by the pharmaceuticals company Janssen to protect against the most common variants of HIV. Janssen is also sponsoring the trial, whose double tag simply represents the HIV Vaccine Trials Network’s (HVTN 705) and Janssen’s (HPX2008) naming systems.
  • The AVAC infographic: The Years Ahead in Biomedical HIV Prevention, gives a snapshot of HIV prevention efficacy trials, their products, locations, and timelines.

In-person research literacy trainings will continue to be part of AVAC’s regular research translation and advocacy offerings, which include publications, the Px Wire newsletter, primers and fact sheets, infographics, Advocates’ Network updates, webinar series, P-Values blog, Px Pulse podcast, media cafés for science journalists, and a new online learning and networking platform known as Engage!

For opportunities to participate in short trainings in your area, or for assistance in organizing one, contact us at avac@avac.org.