Is Aeras on Track for a Tuberculosis Vaccine? The Gates Foundation Is Betting It Is

Earlier this year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded Aeras, a non-profit organization that works diligently toward the development of effective tuberculosis (TB) vaccines, $200 million over five years. Aeras has given the go-ahead (as well as the financial and technical support) to begin human efficacy trials of the vaccine via the South African Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative (SATVI).Why South Africa? Because the country has the third-highest TB rate in the world, with around 1% of its population developing active TB every year.

Related: Gates Foundation: Grants for Global Health

The majority of those contracting TB each year in South Africa are young adults. Dr. Hassan Mahomed, head of the clinical trials, believes that developing an effective vaccine "would help create a healthier young work force to effectively participate in the economy. This would help to reduce poverty by improving productivity." So there are two goals to this trial. To that end, the average cost for treating TB is around $250,000 per year, so in poverty-ridden areas, prevention truly is the key.

Parents began enrolling their infants in the efficacy trial beginning in 2009 and ending in 2011. The program reportedly enrolled 3,000 infants, and results of the efficacy of the vaccine are expected in the beginning of 2013.

Lest anyone become concerned that Aeras and SATVI are testing a new vaccine on infants, you can rest easier knowing that safety trials were already performed on adults, children, and infants as well as HIV-positive and TB-infected adults. Once the vaccine was deemed safe, the efficacy trial was given the green light. It's important to note that this is the first TB efficacy trial in infants in 90 years.

Tuberculosis isn't something that those of us in the United States often think about as a life-threatening disease. However, the lung disease is a worldwide pandemic, with an estimated 8.7 million people infected last year and 1.4 million deaths. TB also is a leading cause of death for HIV-infected individuals, orphaning more than 10 million children as a result of the TB deaths of their parents.

As if those stats alone weren't scary enough, earlier this year scientists discovered that in an "alarming number" of TB cases in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America, the disease was resistant to the top four and most powerful antibiotics used to combat the illness.

All this information put together makes TB research challenging, but there's more. Dr. Mahomed notes that funding is particularly trying in the TB battle, stating:

People are often less knowledgeable about tuberculosis than they are about some other diseases, and funders are less willing to put money into tuberculosis and tuberculosis vaccine development. The challenge is to win over more support for TB research, and specifically for TB vaccine development and clinical trials.

Coupled with an estimated $1.7 billion in funding over the next five years toward TB research and vaccinations, those pandemic numbers are expected to get even bigger. So that $200 million in funding from the Gates Foundation is much needed.

Related: Trevor Mundel