Over the last few decades, we’ve made enormous strides when it comes to treatments for HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus.
For starters, it’s no longer considered a death sentence. While there still isn’t a cure, many people who contract HIV live full lives, thanks to medications that can suppress the level of virus in the body. What’s more, there are drugs that can help reduce the risk of infection in the first place.
But there is one area where progress has been slower: the hunt for a vaccine to more broadly help prevent HIV infection and AIDS.
“Despite all the advances we’ve made with [antiretroviral] drug therapies and pre-exposure prophylaxis to prevent infection, HIV remains a very real problem in our world,” says Dave Wessner, an infectious disease scientist and professor of biology at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina. “We’ll need an effective vaccine in our arsenal in order to gain global control over this virus.”
HIV by the Numbers
- HIV affects roughly 1.2 million people in the U.S.
- About 13 percent of people who have HIV don’t know it yet and need testing.
- About 34,800 new HIV infections occurred in the U.S. in 2019.
- From 2015 through 2019, HIV diagnoses increased among certain age groups, including adults 45 to 54 years old. They remained stable among adults 55-plus.
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Scientists are optimistic, though, that a win could come soon, thanks to recent breakthroughs. Here’s a look at HIV vaccine history and how the COVID-19 pandemic has helped spur research along — plus, a peek at the most promising products in development now.
The quest for a vaccine
This may seem doubly confusing, considering the whirlwind speed at which scientists created vaccines against COVID-19. But there are very real biological differences between HIV and other viruses such as COVID-19, Wessner says.
“The HIV virus mutates at a really high rate,” he says. “We hear so much about variants of COVID-19, but it doesn’t mutate nearly as rapidly as HIV does.”