The same mRNA technology that’s helping us fight COVID provided a formula that’s evaded scientists for 40 years.
In the 40 years since the start of the AIDS epidemic, scientists have tried and failed to develop an effective vaccine against HIV. Finally, a worthy contender has entered the ring: This week, Moderna started human clinical trials of an HIV vax that uses the same mRNA technology as its COVID jabs. Previous trials conducted on monkeys have shown a lot of promise and testing the vaccine on real people is a critical last step to getting the vaccine approved for medical use.
Moderna confirmed that it had administered the first shots of its vaccine at George Washington University on Thursday alongside the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. The Phase 1 clinical trial consists of 56 HIV-negative adults across the country, 48 of whom will receive one or two doses of the mRNA vaccine. Out of those, 32 will also receive a booster, while eight other participants will receive only the booster, which is expected to produce HIV immunogens, per ABC. The goal of the vaccine is to stimulate the production of B-cells that will hopefully create antibodies against the virus and to also to determine which vaccine regimen is most effective.
Developing an effective HIV vaccine has been extremely complex for several reasons: For one, the virus tricks and attacks the same immune system that is supposed to neutralize it. On top of that, HIV replicates extremely quickly and mutates all the time, making it almost impossible for a single vaccine to identify and stop the virus, per the Broad Institute.
The reason we should all be paying attention to Moderna’s HIV vaccine trial is because if it’s successful, this could be another epidemic that mRNA technology helps end. Although HIV/AIDS prevention efforts and research were temporarily thrown off by the COVID pandemic, it seems like all the resources that went into research for mRNA vaccines could end up benefiting the fight to eradicate HIV.
We still live at a time when talking about HIV is stigmatizing, so it feels necessary to add this caveat anytime we write about the virus: Having HIV is not a death sentence and people with HIV can live long and healthy lives with the right medication. For HIV-negative people, there’s a pill called PrEP that, when taken every day, reduces the risk of contracting HIV by approximately 99%.
Still, an effective vaccine would be amazing news for our communities considering that people of color still make up a bulk of new HIV diagnoses each year. Black Americans make up a staggering 42% of new HIV diagnoses in the U.S each year, while Hispanic people make up 29%, according to the CDC.
In short, a vaccine is a huge step forward to democratize HIV prevention for the millions of people who don’t have access to PrEP. Moderna is set to follow and monitor the participants of the clinical trial for the next six months, so we’ll know much more about the effectiveness of the vaccines then.