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2019-06-12 13:14:27

Two hospitals’ joint announcement that they’re seeking volunteers to participate in clinical trials for an HIV vaccine has prompted an outpouring of reactions this week on Chinese social media.

In a statement published last week, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced a plan to recruit 160 volunteers for the second phase of clinical trials for an HIV vaccine. Beijing You’An Hospital and the Hangzhou-based First Affiliated Hospital of Zhejiang University aim to enlist 104 and 56 HIV-negative volunteers, respectively, aged between 18 and 55. As an added incentive, each volunteer will receive a participation bonus of 15,000 yuan ($2,170).

In an interview with The Beijing News, Professor Zhang Tong, head of the HIV vaccine project and deputy director of Beijing You’an Hospital’s center for infectious diseases, said that the volunteers would receive three rounds of injections as well as relevant blood tests. The volunteers would also be required to come to the hospital for follow-up appointments over the next two years, she said.

Blood tests administered during these subsequent appointments will look for certain antibodies to determine whether the results match the researchers’ predictions, Zhang told Sixth Tone in a phone call Wednesday.

According to the World Health Organization, many vaccines consist of weakened samples of the virus they’re aiming to prevent, prompting an immune response without causing infection. The patient’s body then “remembers” the virus and is able to react quickly and stave off infection in the future.

In recent years, the Chinese government has taken steps to raise public awareness of HIV/AIDS, with the initiative to develop an HIV vaccine being included in the State Council’s current Five-Year Plan. However, a pervasive social stigma around HIV in China has led to a lack of education and misunderstandings about the disease. Meanwhile, several recent scandals involving made-in-China vaccines have exacerbated matters by stoking public mistrust in domestic health care.

Under a hashtag on microblogging platform Weibo that translates to “Beijing and Hangzhou recruit AIDS vaccine volunteers,” the clinical trials have received mixed reactions. While many netizens have praised the innovative research, a smaller group have said they’re concerned about a perceived infection risk to the volunteers.

“Think about the previous fake vaccine incident — you should know that the relevant departments’ credibility is bankrupt,” wrote one Weibo user. “Don’t be a lab mouse.”

Most netizens, however, say they’re thankful for and confident in the new vaccine.

“The development of each new drug requires three phases of clinical trials because it’s necessary to ensure that the drug is harmless and effective. This is already the second phase, which indicates that drug’s safety is ensured,” another Weibo user commented under a related media post. “Please don’t view this through a tinted lens just because this is an AIDS vaccine.”

Professor Zhang, for her part, has tried to allay the public’s concerns. “The vaccine is not a virus — not an HIV virus — so it’s unlikely that it would produce AIDS-related antibodies,” she explained during the Beijing News interview. Zhang added that while she can see how it might be difficult to recruit volunteers, she feels encouraged by the success of the vaccine’s early-stage trials. “During the 12th Five-Year Plan, we processed 150 people, and the patients’ safety and clinical outlooks have been quite good,” she said.

Chuang Chuang, a volunteer with a Hangzhou-based nonprofit organization that’s helping to recruit volunteers for the trials, told Sixth Tone on Wednesday that he’s been contacted by over 100 people since domestic media began reporting on the project. However, he said that to his knowledge, fewer than 30 people have gone on to meet with the doctors — the next step toward becoming a volunteer.

“The most common question is whether they’ll be infected after receiving the vaccine,” Chuang said. “But when I tell them the answer is ‘No,’ they don’t have further concerns.” Another common query Chuang gets has to do with the time frame: The trial takes 88 to 112 weeks and requires frequent hospital visits.

With so many netizens espousing some form of AIDS-phobia, Chuang says this phenomenon is merely the result of a lack of understanding of the disease. “It’s just the fear of the unknown,” he said.

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: VCG)