Exciting Progress in the Development of an HIV Vaccine

Evidence suggests an upcoming vaccine trial looks promising.

By Barrett White


Preliminary data from a clinical trial by The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California looks promising, and suggests that a new HIV vaccine may be on the horizon. The trial was attached to the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI).

“These are very early studies. But nonetheless, they are provocative,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventative medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, told ABC News. Dr. Schaffner was not involved in the clinical trial.

Vaccine efforts for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS if left untreated, have been in the works for over 30 years. Legacy Community Health, founded as an STD clinic in the late 1970s in Montrose (as Montrose Clinic, later rebranding as Legacy in 2005), quickly became one of the dedicated responders to the AIDS crisis when it hit Houston in the early 1980s.

At the time, Montrose Clinic was mostly only able to offer health guidance and palliative care for the dying. We have certainly come a long way in the last few decades in development of HIV treatment options, and Legacy is proud to be on the forefront of providing these treatment options.

“HIV is a ‘naked virus’ compared to other viruses,” says Dr. Natalie Vanek, infectious disease expert at Legacy Community Health and Chair of the Texas HIV Medication Advisory Committee. “It only has 7-15 spike proteins on its surface, which allows HIV to evade human antibody responses. Now with a broadly neutralizing antibody vaccine, there is hope to outsmart this HIV evasive maneuver.”

The vaccine, which is still unproven, will need to be tested in a large clinical study. Though this study still needs to take place, experts like Dr. Schaffner of Vanderbilt University are hopeful that this vaccine will be successful where other vaccine hopefuls were not.

Why haven’t we seen a vaccine yet?

Research has shown that HIV does not behave like other viruses we have vaccines for, like measles, chickenpox, or hepatitis B. HIV mutates rapidly and has many different subtypes, meaning that a vaccine for one HIV subtype may prevent that specific subtype, but be completely ineffective against another HIV subtype.

“We have been waiting decades for this promising news. Phase 1 trials in humans start in third quarter of 2021,” Dr. Vanek says.

What distinguishes this vaccine from the others that came before it is that the goal is to make the body create “broadly neutralizing antibodies”. This means that the individual’s immune system will, hopefully, be stimulated to create immunity against many HIV variants, not just one.

So far, the first trial – which is still underway – was comprised of only 48 individuals. Each received a total of two doses of either the vaccine or a placebo, two months apart. Data reflects that 97% of those who received the vaccine had an immune system response and that their bodies may be producing those “broadly neutralizing antibodies” against HIV.

But for now, HIV care providers promote prevention and treatment. Without a current vaccine, the strongest tool in our toolkit for ending the HIV epidemic is PrEP, the once-daily pill for the prevention of HIV, which is 99% effective in preventing the spread of the virus when taken as prescribed, per the CDC.

In the fight to end HIV, education and prevention is key. Do your part and get tested for free at Legacy today.