Reinvigorating Enthusiasm for an HIV Vaccine

As the scientific world has collaborated to develop a vaccine that is effective against the SARS-CoV-2 virus (COVID-19), many HIV researchers have hoped to cast a similar spotlight upon another notorious virus that grabbed the world’s attention almost exactly forty years ago, in June of 1981.

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Learn about the history of HIV vaccine development and the current progress of vaccine development and HIV prevention.

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PRA Health Sciences
PRA Health Sciences

On May 18th, the medical research world will recognize HIV Vaccine Awareness Day. This annual designation honors the efforts of countless researchers who have spent nearly four decades searching for an HIV vaccine.

“We have lived through a pandemic before, it just wasn't a coronavirus—it was an unidentifiable virus that after many years we would come to know as HIV,” says PRA's Kent Thoelke, EVP and Chief Scientific Officer.

Read on to learn more about the history of HIV vaccine development and the current progress of vaccine development and HIV prevention.

The History of the Search for an HIV Vaccine

The HIV/AIDS phenomenon was first reported in June of 1981 when clinicians in Los Angeles reported five unusual cases of pneumonia in young, otherwise healthy, homosexual men. However, it was not until 1984 that HIV was recognized as the cause of AIDS. Once making the connection, the then-secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Margaret Heckler, touted that an AIDS vaccine would be ready for testing in two years. Unfortunately, her hopeful declaration was grossly off-target.

In 1987, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began the first HIV vaccine clinical trial. A year later, in 1988, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) also started a clinical trial, which would graduate to Phase II four years later. Many years and many trials later, in 1998, the research community observed the first annual HIV Vaccine Awareness Day to honor not only the significant toil of researchers, but also the dedication of all study volunteers that had been involved.

HIV researchers further advanced their vaccine efforts in 2003, when the US government partnered with the government of Thailand to jointly launch a Phase III trial known as RV144. Six years later, researchers announced that this trial showed a modest preventive effect in humans. According to the NIAID, this investigational HIV vaccine study is the first and only study to date to show efficacy; however, the search for a vaccine continues.

Current Progress in HIV Vaccine Development

The unique nature of HIV continues to pose challenges when it comes to vaccine development. Researchers, continue to search for an effective HIV vaccine. Many have leveraged positive findings from RV144 to develop new research agendas. In 2015, researchers began a study to test the safety of an experimental HIV vaccine based on findings from RV144. However, this was stopped in 2020 because it did not appear to be effective.

Most recently, in 2017, the NIAID launched a proof-of-concept study of a mosaic vaccine in an attempt to trigger an immune response to several different HIV strains. This trial continues and is currently in Phase IIb.

Other current lines of vaccine investigation include:

  • Assessment of whether antibody infusions can be safely used to prevent HIV infections.
  • Assessment of whether placing HIV genes into a carrier virus can trigger a cell-based immune response.

HIV researchers have also been making progress in non-vaccine solutions in the fight against HIV, such as bone marrow transplants, and long-acting preventive measures. Researchers at the PRA Center for Vaccines and Emerging Infectious Diseases are committed to using their therapeutic expertise to contribute to these valiant efforts.

Current Primary Means of HIV Prevention

Fortunately, patients who are at risk of exposure to HIV have effective options when it comes to HIV prevention. The simplest method is barrier protection with condoms, which are highly effective at preventing HIV, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Additionally, a medication regimen known as Preexposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) is 99% effective at reducing the chance of contracting HIV through sexual intercourse.

These prevention methods are beneficial and provide security for communities that are most at risk of contracting HIV. However, models predict that a vaccine that is at least 70% effective would have a more significant effect on HIV rates than PrEP medications on their own.

Celebrating HIV Vaccine Awareness Day with PRA

Although HIV testing and awareness have progressed since the 1980s, there is still a lot of work to be done. PRA is fully committed to working to combat the sizeable global health threat posed by HIV.

At PRA’s Center for Vaccine Research, we apply our hands-on, boutique operating model with the capabilities of a global CRO to solve your challenges and customize solutions to meet your unique needs. We use data intelligence to identify and target endemic areas and areas with high disease prevalence to improve study design, site selection, and enrollment forecasting in ways that others cannot. Our solutions are designed to deliver rapid and predictable outcomes, as well as cost-effective trials that prevent the spread of unnecessary disease.

Learn more from our experts about how HIV testing and awareness has progressed

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