The first advanced clinical trials in South Africa for a tuberculosis vaccine are scheduled for completion by early next year, scientists said Tuesday.
South African researcher Dr. Hassan Mohomed said the trials will make medical history, even if the vaccine doesn't work. He said the results will still help scientists understand the world epidemic and gather data that could hasten the eventual eradication of TB.
The government's health department said Tuesday that South Africa has the second highest rate of TB infection in the world after the tiny southern African nation of Swaziland. TB is the biggest killer of HIV-positive South Africans, whose resistance to disease is lowered.
Mike Brennan, an adviser to the U.S.-based Aeras nonprofit TB research group, said the new worldwide blueprint for a plan of action followed "tremendous progress" already made in the past decade.
"Ten years ago no vaccine was in clinical trials," he said Tuesday at the launch of a new global drive to find a vaccine.
The South African trials and work in other countries now mark "a rallying point for one of the world's deadliest diseases" that includes strains resistant to conventional drugs, he said.
"It's like building a house. We have the plans, we need builders to bring the finance and workers to bring the tools," he said.
If trials over the next three years fail, scientists will learn where major gaps in their research lie.
"We are at a key time now when we have the hope of a new vaccine being developed over the next ten years," he said.
That would relieve immense burdens on poor nations where TB and HIV/AIDS are prevalent.
Scientist Gavin Churchyard said projections a vaccine could be found by 2015 "are not going to happen."
"We have got to think out of the box on new ways to find it," he said.
David Mametja of the South African health department said South Africa recorded about 1,000 TB cases in every 100,000 members of the 50 million population, slightly behind Swaziland at about 1,300 per 100,000 people.
It recorded more than 7,000 virulent, resistant cases in 2010. Those cases took up to two years to treat at ten times the cost of common strains.
He said the government backed research for a vaccine but didn't have "buckets and buckets" of money for it. It was looking for private funding to assist, possibly from mining companies whose miners worked in confined spaces and faced the highest risk of contracting the contagious illness.
He said on his way to Tuesday's program launch he watched scores of passing minibus taxis.
"TB is a huge problem in this country." said Mametja, who said he wondered "how many passengers were unknowingly contracting TB" as he watched the buses.
"A vaccine is the only opportunity for us to ultimately eliminate TB," he said.