Metro Weekly

Filling the Vaccine Vacancy

The search for an HIV vaccine remains strong at NIH

September ended with some discouraging news in the effort to make a vaccine against HIV. Pharmaceutical giant Merck announced it was halting its large-scale clinical trials of such a vaccine after data showed little — if any — promise for its potential. But as every Sound of Music fan knows, ”When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.” In this case, it was opened Monday night at Titan’s Ramrod on 14th Street NW.

”Our vaccine has more genes in it than the Merck vaccine,” offered Dr. Barney Graham, chief of the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory and Clinical Trials Core at the National Institutes of Health’s Vaccine Research Center (VRC). In plainer terms, offered by Scott Simpson, former co-chair of the Capital Area Vaccine Effort (CAVE) Graham is ”a superstar in this field,…the Mariah Carey” of HIV-vaccine research.

Graham was speaking about the VRC’s own, and ongoing, HIV-vaccine trials at the Oct. 1 event sponsored by The Center – Home for GLBT in DC, the D.C. Department of Health’s HIV/AIDS Administration (HAA) and the Whitman-Walker Clinic, as well as Ramrod and its parent Dakota Cowgirl restaurant.

Graham went on to detail how the VRC’s HIV-vaccine efforts differ from what Merck was attempting, emphasizing that Merck’s failure should not lead people to lose hope for an eventual vaccine.

”There are a lot of differences,” he told the small crowd of about 25 people Monday, gathered around Ramrod’s small backstage. With a tone and stature that would see him doing well as an impersonator of a younger Kris Kristofferson, Graham ticked through those differences, which he said should deliver ”a much more comprehensive immune response” than Merck’s effort.

Beyond watching HIV-vaccine development from the sidelines, speakers David Mariner, of the D.C. Comprehensive AIDS Resource and Education (CARE) Consortium, and Simpson urged eligible candidates to consider enrolling in HIV-vaccine clinical trials — as they have both done in the past.

”It’s an opportunity for everyday people to be involved in this process,” Simpson said, adding that he had an ”excellent experience” as a vaccine-trial volunteer.

What the VRC needs are people ages 18 to 50, who are healthy and HIV-negative, not pregnant nor breastfeeding. With them, Graham says the VRC’s HIV-vaccine trials will continue, despite the bad news from Merck.

”The goal of the VRC is to find a solution for HIV,” he insisted. ”This is a long-term process…. It’s just a matter of time.”

For more information about enrolling in an investigational, preventive HIV-vaccine research study, visit, or call 866-833-5433.

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Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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