May 21, 2015

Four reasons now is the time to ramp up investment in HIV/AIDS vaccine R&D

Senior Program Assistant

This Monday, May 18 was HIV Vaccine Awareness Day (HVAD), and GHTC members AVAC, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation convened leaders in the field to discuss the state of HIV/AIDS vaccine research and development (R&D). The discussion—which was hosted as both a briefing for congressional staffers and a dialogue among partners—included Dr. Gaudensia Mutua of the Kenya AIDS Vaccine Initiative, Dr. Yegor Voronin of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, and Michelle Dees of IAVI.

With worldwide investment in HIV/AIDS vaccine research on the decline since 2007 and some members of Congress calling for further cuts to US investment in this area, the discussion illustrated four key reasons why now is the time to ramp up—rather than scale down—investment in HIV/AIDS vaccine R&D.

(1) We are closer than ever to developing an HIV/AIDS vaccine

Despite the complexity and mutability of the HIV virus and the difficulty of producing a vaccine, there are currently thirty different HIV/AIDS vaccine candidates in the research pipeline. To ensure that the best candidates advance, strong investments are needed to support this diverse portfolio of vaccines. While most of these candidates are still being tested for safety and for evidence of an immune response, one candidate has already demonstrated partial efficacy. The evidence from that clinical trial has since been used to adjust the vaccine regimen, and the new regimen is currently being tested in another round of clinical trials.

(2) We cannot eradicate HIV/AIDS without a vaccine

While we have made immense progress in combatting HIV/AIDS with AIDS-related deaths falling by 35 percent since the peak in 2005, eradication will not be possible without a vaccine. For every one person who starts treatment, two more are infected, resulting in 2.1 million new infections and 1.5 million AIDS-related deaths each year. The stigma surrounding the disease continues to impede diagnosis and treatment efforts globally. While existing tools—from antiretroviral treatment to voluntary male circumcision—have had a major impact on reducing the spread of the disease, a vaccine is needed to completely protect against infection.

(3) Investments in HIV/AIDS vaccine R&D are producing broader impacts on global health

The HIV virus is highly mutable, and is constantly adapting to better fight the immune system. Consequently, many of the standard approaches to vaccine R&D have not proved fruitful. One of the most common types of vaccines—a live attenuated vaccine—involves the use of a weakened, but live version of the pathogen to stimulate the immune system to develop antibodies. The mutability of the virus has made this approach impossible and unsafe.

Alternately, scientists often examine the immune response of a survivor to develop a vaccine that will imitate or enhance that process. As no one has ever rid their body of the HIV virus once infected, researchers started the search without a roadmap for what might work.

While developing a vaccine that can defend against an ever-changing virus has been a major challenge for scientists, the search has led to invaluable insights into the immune system and progress in vaccinology writ large.

Additionally, investments in strengthening HIV/AIDS vaccine R&D capacity in endemic countries have produced broader research and health benefits. For example, the Kenya AIDS Vaccine Institute (KAVI) in Nairobi, Kenya, was established primarily to gather data and conduct clinical trials. However, in addition to the 11 vaccine candidates it has tested in the past 14 years, the institute trained more than 1,500 people between 2010 and 2014. These trainees have been educated in everything from laboratory management and clinical practice to grant writing and vaccine literacy. Additionally, the KAVI facility has been used to test vaccines and drugs for other infectious diseases including Ebola, has helped provide trial participants access to treatment options they may otherwise not have received, and has played a role in combating the stigma of HIV/AIDS in the local community.

(4) A vaccine for HIV/AIDS would have enormous financial benefits

While the human impact of HIV/AIDS is more than enough reason to invest in vaccine R&D, the continued financial cost of treatment should also be noted. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which reaches nearly 5 million people each year, spends US$338 per patient per year on HIV/AIDS treatment, and that’s down from an initial $1,100. A vaccine could prevent between 5.2 and 10.7 million new infections and could consequently save $46 to $95 billion over ten years—just in treatment costs.

For more information, check out these key messages from AVAC or this video featuring researchers and clinicians across the HIV vaccine field.