Scientists are starting two studies in Africa trialling a new HIV vaccine and a long-acting injectable drug, fuelling hopes that an effective protection against the virus will soon be developed.

It is the first time in over ten years that two big HIV vaccine trials are taking place simultaneously.

The project is being developed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in collaboration with pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Both studies will build on a 2009 trial in Thailand which showed a 31 percent reduction in infections.

Johnson & Johnson chief scientific officer, Paul Stoffels, told Reuters it should be possible to achieve effectiveness above 50 percent:

We’re making progress. Hopefully, we get much higher.

Earlier this week the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) warned the number of people in Europe newly diagnosed with HIV reached its highest recorded level in 2016, with 160,000 people discovered to have the disease.

Around 80 percent of those were in eastern Europe. Officials said the illness was spreading “at an alarming pace”, due to most diagnoses (51 percent) happening in a late stage of infection.

The two new studies

The HIV vaccine — called Imbokodo, which is Zulu for rock — has reached the efficacy testing stage, discerning whether the regimen is safe and effective in the prevention of HIV infection.

It will involve 2,600 sexually active, HIV negative women between the ages of 18 and 35 in southern African countries.

They will be given either the vaccine or a placebo and then monitored over a three year period to see if infection is prevented. The study is looking to enrol women from South Africa, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The vaccine regimen is based on so-called mosaic immunogens — designed to induce immune responses against a variety of HIV strains.

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This means it will produce a global vaccine, taking into account different types of the virus from around the world.

Clinical results on the mosaic vaccine at an AIDS conference in Paris this July found it was safe, and saw a good immune response in healthy volunteers.

The second trial will evaluate the benefits of giving injections of the experimental drug cabotegravir every two months.

The initiative was developed by GlazoSmithKline’s ViiV Healthcare unit and seeks to enrol 3,200 women in sub-Saharan Africa.

It too is backed by the NIH and Gates Foundation. ViiV has an ongoing study from December of last year with its long-acting injection, focused on HIV negative men and trans-women who have sex with men.

Globally around 37m people have HIV, with 1.8m being infected last year.

Of those, 43 percent were from eastern and southern Africa, an area that sees almost 60 percent of its population infected with the virus being women and girls.

Though medical advancements have seen extended life-spans and increased health for those infected with the virus, the growing numbers of those contracting the illness means finding an effective vaccine is still crucial in controlling its spread.

Groups such as the University of Massachusetts, University of Maryland, Texas Biomed, Duke University, GeoVax, Aelix  are pursuing their own developments of an HIV vaccine.