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COVID-19 to HIV Vaccines: lessons learnt from the COVID-19 vaccine development

Written by Nompilo Gwala

Researchers have been trying to develop an HIV vaccine for about four decades without success. However, the successful development of a COVID-19 vaccine could provide lessons for scientists.

Vaccine development is an important strategy for the prevention of infectious diseases and reducing the morbidity and mortality rates. Researchers have been working on finding an HIV vaccine since the 1980s but the development of an effective vaccine has been slow-moving.

Most vaccines against other diseases stimulate the production of antibodies that neutralise viral infectivity but the challenge with HIV is that neutralising antibodies do not clear the infection because HIV reproduces and mutates so quickly that antibodies produced against the virus become ineffective against newer viruses.

The anticipation to having an effective HIV vaccine is a more realistic likelihood today than it was a decade ago. In 1984, the U.S Secretary of Health and Human Service, Margaret Heckler ambitiously predicted that a HIV vaccine would be available in two years. Three decades later and there is no vaccine but finding an effective HIV vaccine remains as the number one task for the HIV response.

Rapid COVID-19 vaccine development

The rapidity of COVID-19 vaccine development and distribution has shown us that the urgency to end an epidemic can be successful and that funding for research can be found within months. The development of the vaccine has proved that public institutions, universities, pharmaceutical companies and non-profit organisations can work together to create life-long technologies.

Many experts such as Professor Helen Rees, speaking at the 10th SA AIDS Conference, believe that COVID-19 vaccines could help the world to develop a successful and highly effective HIV vaccine. Rees stated that the COVID-19 vaccine development was a success because of the ‘huge global research investment’ and ‘democratisation and sharing of data’.

Rees shared that most diseases emerging are zoonotic diseases and account for 60% for infectious diseases most of these originating in wildlife. A zoonotic disease is an infectious disease that is transmitted between species from animals to humans (or from humans to animals). In 2010, there were six times more zoonotic spillover events than in 1980.

Three lessons COVID-19 vaccines

Research professor and research director at Wits RHI, Professor Sinead Delany-Moretlwe shared three lessons that should be learnt from the COVID19 vaccine development that can be implemented in the creation of the HIV vaccine.

“The biggest lesson we learned from the  COVID-19 pandemic was the sense of urgency,” she said.

“With the global pandemic the world has mobilised in spectacular ways. Firstly we’ve been able to mobilise massive resources. The resources that have gone into covid vaccine development have been a bit more higher than what we have put into HIV,” added Delany-Moretlwe.

The research professor said that the second lesson learnt from the COVID19 vaccine development is science enhancement and collaborations. Scientists and researchers attracted a broad and diverse funding base.

“We’ve seen a lot of cross disease collaboration that has allowed for pursue of multiple leads. The identification of successes  as well as rapid identification of failures,” stated Delany-Moretlwa.

The professor shared her third lesson stating that rapid clinical development is needed.

“The third lesson we can learn from COVID-19 for the HIV vaccine development is the opportunity for rapid clinical development. We have seen trial design have not taken the traditional parallel path but we have done different phases sequentially. We’ve also tested multiple vaccines in the same platform in some instances and that really lead to shorter timelines,” added Delany-Moretlwa.

New vaccine technology

After more than 30 years of research, scientist have made some improvement to find the HIV vaccine. Delany-Moretlwa added that MRAN technology used for the covid vaccine showed that it has a promising future for HIV vaccines.

“The MRAN technology, we now saw data presented by CROI [Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections] suggesting that an MRAN vaccine for HIV shows success in non-human prime mates,” she added.

Vaccination production in Africa has become a hot topic following persistent struggle for most African countries to secure COVID-19 vaccines. About a decade ago, African countries endorsed in a plan to increase the continents ability to make their own vaccines and other medicines.

Rees stated that identifying opportunities to scale-up African vaccine manufacturing capabilities is critical to establishing Africa’s health security by developing the capabilities and capacity to respond to current and future pandemics and outbreaks in a more rapid and agile manner.

Despite the challenges of finding the HIV vaccine, scientists are still researching a variety of solutions and have made progress in the fight against AIDS. – Health-e News

About the author

Nompilo Gwala