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AIDS vaccine hope for Asians

Washington, Feb. 24 (Reuters): The first AIDS vaccine to be tested in people failed to prevent HIV infection in the general population but may protect US blacks and Asians, vaccine-maker VaxGen Inc. said on Monday.

Long-awaited results from VaxGen’s trial of AIDSVAX show the vaccine only reduced the rate of HIV infection by 3.8 per cent in 5,000 men and women considered at high risk in the US and Netherlands, VaxGen said in a statement.

“Overall what we see is the trial failed,” VaxGen president Donald Francis told a conference call. “We have a good news and bad news situation. The bad news is that overall we do not have efficacy, especially in the white and Hispanic populations.” But he added that there was a “pot of gold”.

“There was a 500-person subset in this that showed clear efficacy. The challenge here is to see if this a statistical fluke.”

That could depend on whether VaxGen can finance additional trials. The company had just $18 million in cash and investment securities at the end of December 2002.

“The big problem is whether they will have the funds to exploit the positive information,” said Steve Brozak, an analyst at Westfield Bakerink and Brozak. “It is unclear, with the capital markets as horrendous as they are, whether the company has a future.”

Shares of the Brisbane, California-based VaxGen fell $7.32, or 56 per cent, to $5.72 in mid-morning trading on Nasdaq.

Dr Seth Berkley, president and chief executive officer of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative in New York, called the announcement “disappointing”.

When VaxGen’s figures were analysed, they showed that Asians and blacks who got the vaccine had a 67 per cent lower rate of infection than those who got a placebo shot.

“There were 78 per cent fewer HIV infections among black volunteers who received vaccine compared to placebo recipients,” the company said.

The company said it hoped this might be a first step toward fighting a virus that has killed 28 million people worldwide.

There were only 498 blacks and Asians in the trial, so the numbers are difficult to interpret. But these volunteers seemed to produce more antibodies against the virus than others, and the company was examining them further to see if they could provide clues to help improve the vaccine.

Drug price

Switzerland’s Roche Holding has priced its new HIV drug Fuzeon at a record-breaking 18,980 euros ($20,570) a year, fuelling controversy about the cost of AIDS treatments. Roche said the high cost — more than double the cost of other HIV/AIDS drugs on the market — reflected the complexity of manufacturing the revolutionary product, involving more than 100 production steps.

Several companies, including Roche, had bowed to pressure from humanitarian groups in recent years to slash the cost of AIDS drugs in poor countries.

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