In the Fight to Eliminate HIV, Do We Need a Vaccine?

Nicholas Hellmann, MD is Executive Vice President for Medical and Scientific Affairs for EGPAF and a leading expert in the field of HIV/AIDS research.


Much of recent media attention on the fight to eliminate HIV has focused on creating a cure for HIV, but there is another side to the research: the hunt for a vaccine to prevent HIV from ever taking hold. To learn more about the challenges and possibilities of an HIV vaccine, we spoke with Nick Hellmann, Executive Vice President for Medical and Scientific Affairs for EGPAF.

Despite the flurry of attention on a cure for HIV, Dr. Hellmann says that more money and research is going into the development of a vaccine for HIV. “The unsuccessful efforts to develop a highly effective HIV vaccine over the past decades have lessened the attention to and interest by many in HIV vaccines,” he said, but added that “despite that waning interest, HIV vaccine science has progressed dramatically over the recent years and is showing more promise than ever.” Dr. Hellmann said that a cure for HIV is essential to eliminating HIV and AIDS, even with the existence of an HIV vaccine. “There were approximately 34 million HIV-infected persons in the world at the end of 2011,” he said. “Even if we have an effective preventative HIV vaccine, the vaccine will not cure those 34 million infected individuals. Ending the HIV epidemic will likely require both a highly effective preventative HIV vaccine and a cure for HIV infection. In other words, the vaccine will prevent new infections … and the cure will eradicate HIV from currently infected people.” Dr. Hellmann said that the search for a vaccine has been “far more complex than originally expected,” making the need for a cure a more tenable option for ending the HIV epidemic.

What might be the benefits of a vaccine for HIV? Dr. Hellmann said that vaccines have proven to be cheaper and more cost-effective than treating viral infections. Vaccines are also generally better at ending epidemics – preventing new infections is easier than treating every person living with the disease. “Even if a cure is found,” Dr. Hellmann said, “it will be difficult to identify every infected person and ‘cure’ them before they can transmit to someone else. Thus, a vaccine will … be desirable unless a very simple, cheap, safe, and highly effective cure is identified.”

The challenges for creating a vaccine for HIV differ from those facing researchers working on a cure for HIV, Dr. Hellmann said, explaining that viral vaccines stimulate the body’s immunity to a disease (in this case, HIV), whereas a cure would attack the virus or the cells infected by the virus. But he added that some approaches used for vaccines could be used in the fight for a cure. “If we can alter the immune system of an already infected person to destroy the virus and infected cells,” he said, “that might both cure the infection and protect the individual from future infections.”

Jane Coaston is Media Relations Coordinator for the Foundation, based in Washington, D.C.