Is there a vaccine for HIV? Why the world's most lethal pandemic has been all but forgotten

The National HIV Vaccine Awareness Day falls on May 18 and here's a look at where the world stands in battling the deadly disease


                            Is there a vaccine for HIV? Why the world's most lethal pandemic has been all but forgotten
There are currently three late-stage HIV vaccine trials that are being developed in different parts of the world (Representative picture/Getty Images)

As the world battles the coronavirus pandemic, another dangerous virus that we have battled for years now has been brought back in the spotlight.

As we approach the National HIV Vaccine Awareness Day on May 18, it is very important to take a hard look at where exactly we stand in making a vaccine for this disease, and why a solution has evaded scientists for so long.

As of now, there is no effective cure for HIV, which was first written about in 1981, and has since spread across the globe. Doctors suggest different kinds of medication depending on patients to control HIV. It is also important to understand that HIV over time will cause Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) - a medical condition that destroys one's immunity, leaving the body vulnerable to all diseases. 

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The earliest described case of AIDS is believed to have been in Norway, beginning in 1966, however, there has been no official reportage on the same. However, this has been quoted in 'Encyclopedia of Microbiology' by Joshua Lederberg. 

Are there vaccines in the testing stages?

Yes. According to a report in Center for Community Practice: HIV/STD Prevention & Clinical Care, there are currently three late-stage HIV vaccine trials that are being developed in different parts of the world. They are called HVTN 702, Imbokodo and Mosaico. While scientists are poised and hopeful for a breakthrough, they are also aware of the fact that this could fail. However, this is expected to be a step forward since the world began to fight HIV.

(Getty Images)

Dr Susan Buchbinder, director of the Bridge HIV research program at the San Francisco Department of Public Health and a chair of both the Imbokodo and Mosaico trials, said that this is "perhaps one of the most optimistic moments we have been in."

She explained, “We have three vaccines currently being tested in efficacy trials," adding, "And it takes quite a bit to actually be promising enough in the earlier stages of trials to move you forward into an efficacy study."

Three vaccines in trial

HVTN 702 is the oldest known HIV trial based on a prior vaccine candidate, RV144. RV144 showed results, but they were not enough. The clinical trial findings showed that this vaccine lowered the rate of HIV infections by about 30 percent. Even today, RV144 remains the only HIV vaccine to have demonstrated any efficacy against the virus. HVTN 702 was the first vaccine trial approved after the failure of RV144 and it was launched in South Africa.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the modified vaccination regime, also said that HVTN 702 “aims to provide greater and more sustained protection than the RV144 regimen and has been adapted to the HIV subtype that predominates in southern Africa.”

Imbokodo, the second trial, began in five southern African nations in 2017 and has reportedly completed enrolling 2,600 women. Dr Anthony Fauci, who is a firm believer of receiving vaccine that has even 50% efficacy, spoke about how heterosexual women are more in risk of contracting the virus and said, "It’s almost unbelievable, but it’s true, women between the ages of 18 and 25 — the prevalence of infection is well over 50 percent,” he said.

He also added, “If ever you wanted to get a population that, if the vaccine works, you’re going to know pretty quickly, then you want to go in women.” Imbokodo is different from HVTN 702. These “vaccine components designed to induce immune responses against a wide variety of global HIV strains,” according to the National Institutes of Health and they use “mosaic” immunogens.

Fauci explained, "The presumption is that a mosaic is going to give you broader coverage."

The third HIV clinical vaccine trial is called Mosaico and it kicked off in November, 2019, with an informal start after the first study participant received the jab. As the name suggests, Mosaico is based on using “mosaic” immunogens. Center for Community Practice: HIV/STD Prevention & Clinical Care also stated that the Imbokodo and Mosaico trials are largely identical. They consist of six injections, with slightly different vaccine formulations administered during the final two clinic visits.

Mosaico will also include a wider testing group as it will recruit 3,800 gay men and transgender people for its clinical trials which are to be conducted at 57 sites in the United States, Latin America and Europe. Fauci explained the reasoning behind this and said there’s a need to prove it works in different at-risk populations.  

Results from Imbokodo are expected in 2021, and results from Mosaico are expected in 2023.

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