Optimism on World HIV Vaccine Awareness Day

HIV (in green) budding from a type of white blood cell known as a lymphocyte. Just how close are we to creating a vaccine to prevent HIV infections?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

As the global health community continues to make strides in the fight to end HIV/AIDS, I want to celebrate World HIV Vaccine Awareness Day and applaud the research and development (R&D) community on its progress thus far to develop an effective HIV vaccine.

While recent setbacks may make it seem like a vaccine is still a long way off, we are much closer to meeting our goals than we were at the start of the epidemic more than 30 years ago.

Recent clinical trials for HIV vaccine products may not yet have led to an effective vaccine, but they have helped scientists better understand the human immune system and how it responds to various treatment and prevention measures. For example, in 2009, preliminary HIV vaccine clinical trial results suggested partial effectiveness of approximately 30 percent. While that number may seem low, we can apply these results to future HIV vaccine development programs. As the Research and Development community evaluates past clinical trials, we are also looking towards the future. Trials beginning over the next two years will bring significant follow-up and new research, building on the results of past efforts to take us one step closer to an effective vaccine.

But we can’t talk about a vaccine without also talking about a cure for people currently suffering from HIV and AIDS. As the astounding news of a baby in Mississippi who appears to be “functionally cured” taught us in March, an HIV vaccine is only one part of the massive global effort to ensure an AIDS-free generation. Cases such as the Mississippi baby and the Berlin patient continue to generate hope that a cure is on the horizon. Scientists and researchers around the world are generating new tools and treatment measures that could one day lead to a cure.

For us to beat this virus, we need to fight it on multiple fronts. No one treatment or vaccine is going to end the epidemic. We need a vaccine to prevent new infections while simultaneously enhancing treatment and prevention programs, such as providing HIV positive mothers with the medicine and tools necessary to prevent transmitting the virus to their children. We still have a long way to go but the route has become clearer than ever.

Jeffrey T. Safrit, PhD is Director of Clinical and Basic Research for the Foundation, based in Los Angeles, CA.