A recruiter for a government-sponsored HIV prevention study thinks that members of New York’s gay community aren’t doing enough to get involved and educate themselves about the importance of finding an HIV vaccine.
“There’s just a general feeling of complacency here, that it isn’t such a big deal,” said Damon Jacobs, a recruiter for Project ACHIEVE, a 20-year-old organization based in Union Square that specializes in research with the ultimate goal of eliminating new HIV infections in both men and women.
The group is one of more than 20 sites nationwide — including, also in New York, the Columbia University Medical Center — currently being used to conduct HVTN-505, a clinical study designed to explore the efficacy of an investigational HIV vaccine regimen. Researchers believe the study could answer important questions leading to the discovery and development of effective vaccines in the future.
HVTN-505, which began in August 2009, is sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a division of the National Institutes of Health.
People who qualify to participate in the study are HIV-negative men between the ages of 18 and 50 who have had sex with another man in the past year.
Although NIAID originally planned to enroll 1,350 participants, Jacobs explained that the study’s goal has since expanded to 2,500. He said that, as of October — after more than three years of recruitment in a dozen cities — the study has only gained around 2,200 participants.
Few might expect that HVTN-505 would struggle to attract interest and participation in New York City, alongside cities such as Birmingham, Alabama, or Nashville, but Jacobs asserted that’s precisely what has happened.
“The lack of response from our community has been the biggest obstacle so far,” he said.
Jacobs didn’t provide a figure for how many have participated in the study at Project ACHIEVE to date, but he pointed out that San Francisco and Orlando have outpaced other cities heavily in their recruitment success, and that New York has yielded an overall response somewhere between “average and relatively good” compared to the other nine cities involved.
Jacobs, who often goes to gay bars and nightclubs throughout the city to speak directly with men and inform them about the vaccine study, went on to say he believes the problem is primarily a cultural one.
“New York is more of a ‘me’ town than a ‘we’ town,” he said. “Most people just say ‘no’ to participating without taking the time to learn about it, because if the disease isn’t already directly affecting them personally, they’re not interested.”
Jacobs added that while the lack of interest thus far has been “disheartening,” he remains optimistic about recruiting new participants and finally reaching the national goal of 2,500. He was also quick to acknowledge the positive impact made by those New Yorkers who have joined HVTN-505 or other similar studies.
Jacobs explained that he himself participated in an HIV vaccine study in 2006 and 2007, motivated in large part by the many friends he lost to AIDS throughout the ‘90s.
“It felt really meaningful to be a part of that trial,” he said.
HVTN-505 is a Phase 2 study, meaning that the vaccine regimen being investigated already passed an initial study to determine its safety for use. Phase 2 studies, according to NIAID, are focused mainly on determining the efficacy of the drug being tested.
Although the vaccine regimen being tested in this study is not expected to fully prevent HIV infection, researchers believe it could make a scientific breakthrough by effectively reducing the presence of the virus in people who eventually become HIV-positive, according to the NIAID website.
The government agency also stated the vaccine regimen does not contain any living or dead strain of HIV, and so cannot inadvertently infect any participants in the vaccine study.
To learn how to enroll in the HVTN-505 study at Project ACHIEVE, call 212-388-0008. To learn how to enroll at Columbia University Medical Center, call 212-305-2201. Anyone interested in learning more about the study can also visit nycvaccine.org.
Sam Spokony, a staff reporter at The Villager, can be reached at Sam@TheVillager.com.