HIV Vaccine Development: What You Need to Know

Magic Johnson living with HIV
‘Magic’ Johnson” by Rafael Amado Deras is licensed under CC BY 2.0

HIV vaccine development is not a new idea. If you were around 50 years ago, you might have read about the first cases of HIV described in medical journals. The epidemic peaked in the 1980s, and the disease finally got a name. Conversations centered around the vast number of people dying from AIDS. People were begging for an HIV vaccine- or any help at all.

The good news is we’ve made a lot of progress! Conversations now center around people living with HIV.



You may have seen awareness campaigns or ads for treatment on TV. Perhaps you’ve even seen interviews with celebrities with “undetectable HIV levels,” such as basketball player Magic Johnson, former Styx bassist Chuck Panozzo, and the Olympic gold medal-winning diver Greg Louganis.

While the good news is that these people are not “dying of AIDS,” many people still are. Now, more stories are about people “living with HIV.” The problem is, we still hear them. The thirty-eight million people living with HIV still have significant health risks. They can still transmit HIV to others.

That’s why the HIV vaccine is so important.

An HIV vaccine would mean that we’d be a few generations away from never hearing “dying of AIDS” or “living with HIV” stories again.

This article will tell you what you need to know to become an informed advocate for the HIV vaccine.


HIV Statistics

According to the U.S government site, around 1.2 million people live with HIV in the U.S. Approximately 14% of the population do not know they have the virus and need to get tested. Statistics show that HIV primarily affects minority ethnic and racial groups and bisexual and gay men. About 36,400 HIV cases had emerged as of 2018, a reduction of 7% from 2014.


HIV Incidences and Diagnoses

When looking at HIV cases, you don’t see HIV diagnoses distributed equally across the U.S. You’ll find that most recent cases come from Southern states.

When reviewing data on HIV, there’s a difference between the incidence and the number of new infections reported during a year. HIV incidence rates point to the projected number of new diagnoses during a specific time interval. In contrast, the number of new cases refers to HIV diagnoses and represents a more accurate picture.

However, some people may have the virus for a while without knowing it. The year those people receive a diagnosis is not the same year they became infected.


HIV Symptoms

People can get HIV from sexual contact or sharing needles, or if a mother passes the infection to her baby during pregnancy, delivery, or breastfeeding. To confirm an HIV diagnosis, people have to get tested.

Many people who contract HIV experience flu-like symptoms within 2 to 4 weeks. Scientists call this first phase of the virus acute HIV infection. The symptoms, which last several days or weeks, may include:

  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Muscle aches
  • Rash
  • Chills
  • Night sweats
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Mouth ulcers

Again, testing is essential because some people don’t show symptoms. Testing should be a priority, especially for anyone at higher risk.


HIV Progression

The infection runs through three stages.

Stage 1: Acute HIV infection

This stage is highly contagious. If you suspect you might have HIV, get tested right away.

Stage 2: Chronic HIV infection

You may also know this stage as asymptomatic HIV infection. While the infection remains active, it reproduces at low levels. During this phase, people may not exhibit symptoms or get sick. The second stage may last ten or more years. Although the infection may progress faster sometimes, people can transmit the virus during this phase. If people take HIV medicine, they may not reach the third phase, which leads to AIDS.

Stage 3: Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, or AIDS

By this phase, the patient may suffer from severe illnesses called opportunistic infections or OIs, as the virus has damaged the immune system. People with the third phase of HIV, or AIDs, live about three years if they don’t receive treatment.


HIV virus replication cycle inside a cell
“HIV Virus Replication Cycle” by NIAID is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Why We Need to Develop an HIV Vaccine

 Some people challenge the need for HIV vaccine development because current treatments are so effective. With so many “life or death” stakes diseases to fight, vaccine developers may consider treatable conditions a lower priority.

There is also the argument that HIV vaccine development is more expensive than treatment. After all, “insurance should cover it,” right? Not always. And not for the millions of Americans who remain uninsured or are at risk of losing their insurance due to layoffs or other economic fluctuations. Even co-pays add up and can often mean the difference between life-extending treatment and buying groceries.

Once people enter the unemployment and government-subsidized healthcare arena, you and other taxpayers will be paying at least part of the costs of their HIV treatment, along with illnesses resulting from their compromised immune system.

Insurance won’t cut it for those who refuse to seek treatment because of the stigma it carries. You can’t count on every person who is HIV positive to get treatment consistently enough to remain undetectable. You can’t rely on every person who tests positive to disclose their diagnosis or to get tested at all.

HIV vaccine development would offer a cost-effective solution for preventing and treating the virus. It would also cut the costs of care and save millions of lives worldwide. HIV vaccine development means saving lives with a lower risk of the stigma-avoidance that treatment carries.

Thinking of HIV as “not a big enough problem” is short-sighted. There’s simply too much at stake.


Prophylactic and Therapeutic Vaccines


HIV therapies now vs. the 90s - 20 pills vs. 1 pill
“Antiretroviral Therapy for HIV Infection” by NIAID is licensed under CC BY 2.0


 Most vaccines used for treating a disease or viruses are prophylactic, which means they prevent disease. Doctors administer therapeutic vaccines to fight infections or a disease someone already has. Therefore, doctors label therapeutic vaccines as treatments. Researchers currently investigate therapeutic vaccines to treat cancer, tuberculosis, malaria, hepatitis B, and the bacteria that cause gastric ulcers.

Scientists have two goals when developing a vaccine for HIV: 1) to give the vaccine to people who are at high risk for contracting the virus, making it a prophylactic vaccine, and 2) to use it for therapeutic purposes for treatment. Researchers believe developing a therapeutic vaccine could reduce a patient’s viral load– the amount of HIV in the blood.


Drug Company Interventions and Research

 As of February 2021, big pharma Gilead Sciences has teamed up with Gritstone Oncology to develop a therapeutic HIV vaccine to cure the disease. Under the pact, Gilead plans to run a Phase 1 study for the proposed vaccine and hold on to an option to get an exclusive license to sell the therapy after the trial.

While Gritstone gave few details about the venture, we know the proposed therapeutic vaccine uses simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV)-derived antigens, similar to HIV-1. According to the CDC, researchers believe the HIV infection originated from a chimpanzee in Central Africa. Scientists call the chimpanzee version SIV (Simian Immunodeficiency Virus). Therefore, the use of SIV-derived antigens makes sense when used for the development of an HIV vaccine.

Pharmaceutical company Janssen has been at the forefront in establishing HIV treatment medicines for treating HIV. By partnering with several healthcare professionals and leading pharma companies, Janssen introduced eight medicines that have supported HIV therapies.

The goal for Janssen is to produce drugs that make the viral load undetectable so HIV patients can live longer and healthier lives. While advancing its treatment options, the pharmaceutical company also wants to find a cure. Therefore, Janssen is now on the quest to produce a prophylactic HIV medicine to prevent further development and spread of the disease.

One of the leading non-profits supporting the development of an HIV vaccine is Mission International, which helps developing biomedical tools to prevent the spread of HIV. All of this activity shows support for the question many people pose, “Will there be an HIV vaccine by 2022?”


Final Thoughts

The latest news for an HIV vaccine shows scientists are investigating 65 HIV vaccines in clinical trials to treat and prevent HIV. While doctors have no way to prevent and stop the spread of the disease, researchers remain confident that continual innovations will successfully eradicate HIV internationally. The creation of a vaccine will depend on the involvement of private and public sectors worldwide to support the development of medicines that will cure and prevent HIV.

Meanwhile, there’s one more “sector” able to make a big difference: individuals like you. Here are the Top 10 HIV Charities doing great work to support HIV vaccine development and people living with HIV.

When will researchers finalize HIV vaccine development? When will people no longer die of AIDS? Only one sure answer: The sooner, the better.


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