“It will take 10 years.” That is what researchers usually say when asked how much longer it will take to develop a safe and effective HIV vaccine.
Some of the world’s brightest minds have been on this quest for 30 years, yet we still do not have an HIV vaccine to use today. Recent clinical trials, such as the HVTN 505 study that was stopped because the vaccine was shown to be ineffective at preventing HIV, have generated new challenges to the field.
Despite these setbacks, the scientific basis for developing vaccines has never been better, and the current level of collaboration among scientists, private industry and research institutions is unprecedented. Trials that end without demonstrating efficacy should be looked at as important milestones along the road as they teach us more about the virus and the human response to it. Critically, such trials direct researchers towards protective immune responses we will need to generate with HIV vaccines that will help the body protect itself from this destructive, complicated and deadly disease.
The RV144 Thai trial, led by Thai and Army researchers and funded by the Army and NIH, provided evidence that it is possible for a vaccine to help prevent HIV. Although the efficacy in the Thai study was not high enough to warrant the vaccine’s use as a public health tool, the results are helping scientists develop more effective HIV vaccine candidates.
The U.S. Military HIV Research Program is part of a public-private partnership working to improve the original RV144 vaccine and achieve higher levels of protection. Future efficacy studies are planned to take place in southern Africa and Thailand. There is also a rich pipeline of next generation vaccines in development, and one of them could be the vaccine that helps end the pandemic.
We will need a broad array of prevention tools—many of which are available today—to overcome HIV. An effective vaccine remains a critical component of any long-term strategy. Now is not the time to give up, but to redouble our efforts.
Working together—governments, academic institutions, non-profits, private industry, scientists, clinicians, advocates, and HIV vaccine trial participants— it is conceivable we will realize an effective vaccine in the next decade. Let us re-dedicate ourselves to this challenge.
COL Nelson Michael, MD, PhD
Director, U.S. Military HIV Research Program