WASHINGTON — An unprecedented new HIV study may change how soon the virus can be detected in a person’s system — which scientists hope could lead to developing an effective vaccine.
Currently, it takes three months after the virus has been contracted before it can be detected by an HIV test. But nearly half of all HIV transmissions occur in the first few weeks after it is contracted.
A new test underway in Kenya has detected the virus within five days of contraction, says Fred Sawe, a doctor who has worked on the trial in Kericho, Kenya.
Researchers do stress that more study and follow-up will be conducted to determine the long-term significance of the trial results. In fact, subjects will be followed for at least two years as progression of the virus is monitored.
Sawe says understanding what happens medically in the first stages as HIV mutates and spreads throughout the body is the determining factor in conducting the trial.
“We need to know how what exactly happens, how does your body respond in the first few hours after acquiring the infection,” Dr. Sawe says.
Early results published in March of 2011 showed “acute” HIV infection was found in 26 of 32 cases, although researchers say the numbers, now, are much higher.
The term “acute infection” describes the the first few weeks after a person contracts the virus, and how it imbeds itself in the immune system.
The trial is being conducted in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Thailand. It’s spearheaded by the U.S. Military HIV Research Program, which also published a groundbreaking vaccine trial conducted in Thailand in 2009.
Once a good measure of what happens in the body during the early stages of infection is determined, the results will be used by other research groups in trials to develop an HIV vaccine.
“We think one of the reasons why we’ve never developed a vaccine against HIV is that we were modeling our vaccines against the status of someone who has had HIV for a long time,” Dr. Sawe says.
Currently, more than 34 million people worldwide live with HIV.