MADISON, Wis. — Scientists, providers, and advocates are hopeful technology used in the COVID-19 vaccine could lead to developments in an HIV vaccine.
It’s been nearly 40 years since HIV was first discovered. A cure is elusive, as is a vaccine.
“We certainly had high hopes when HIV first came out for a vaccine,” said Dr. Leslie Cockerham, the head of Vivent Health in Milwaukee. “30, 40 years later, we're still working on this.”
Vivent Health is formerly the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin. It’s the largest HIV/AIDS clinic in the state.
“HIV has proven, unfortunately, to be such a challenging foe, if you will,” Cockerham said. “At first, we didn’t have any treatments. It was very sad and very challenging.”
Treatments have improved dramatically since then. So have prevention efforts with medications like PrEP.
“Nowadays, treatment can be as simple as one pill once a day that people can take for the rest of their lives,” Cockerham said. “But still live long healthy lives. We've made so many advances.”
She was thrilled by the development of the COVID-19 vaccines.
“We really saw this all-in mentality. People were going to be creative, to try new things, to be open to failing. And to be honest, spending a lot of money and still failing,” she said. “I think that it just sort of rejuvenated all of all healthcare. Especially when we think about other viruses like HIV, how do we think outside of the box? How do we be more innovative?”
Scientists believe mRNA technology could someday be used to treat things like cancer, and maybe prevent HIV.
“[mRNA vaccines] encode a piece of what we call messenger RNA, and it's surrounded in a little lipid particle … and they use that to make a protein that's found on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2,” Cockerham said.
“It makes antibodies to that so that when you get exposed potentially to that virus weeks to months down the road, your body springs into action. It recognizes that virus, it already has the antibodies right there. It basically stops that infection in his tracks.”
Creating an HIV vaccine using this method would be far more difficult, though.
“HIV is much more challenging HIV mutates really rapidly. So when we think about making antibodies, for example, to those surface proteins, HIV is always a step ahead of us,” she said. “By the time our body can make [antibodies], it's already mutated.”
For now, they’re still waiting. While vaccines for any and every virus would be great, there can be a pang of envy in seeing a vaccine get developed and approved within a year, when they’ve been hoping for an HIV vaccine for 30-some years.
“There can't help but be some frustration at times, or even feeling a little down, when you see what we were able to do in a year with SARS CoV-2, and the challenges we still face with HIV,” Cockerham said.
Still, the COVID-19 vaccine could signal light far off at the end of the tunnel for HIV.
“It’s still going to be I think, at least five to 10 years down the road,” Cockerham said. “But I still have hope.”
Until a vaccine or cure is developed, Cockerham said prevention and treatment have never been better.
“We’ll let scientists keep on working on their part of things,” she said. “And we'll keep doing our part in terms of getting people into care, keeping them in care, and helping them live long healthy lives.”
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