Bengaluru: The last time a virus affected the world at a scale comparable to the current coronavirus pandemic was the 1980s, when the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) triggered an epidemic.
HIV, which causes the Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome or AIDS, was first conclusively detected in humans in the 1950s. Three decades later, it ravaged the world as a near-certain death sentence — since the modes of transmission included unprotected sex, it spawned an atmosphere of fear and stigma that stalks patients to this day.
In the years since, humanity has learnt to live with the virus, with antiviral treatments giving patients a shot at the same lifespan as others. However, the pursuit of a vaccine for HIV, which mutates rapidly, has proved fruitless so far.
Fruitless, but not futile. In a new report, the US daily Washington Post (WaPo) has outlined how the decades of efforts by the scientific community to find an HIV vaccine has helped give an impetus to the search for a Covid-19 vaccine.
With $14.5 billion funnelled into the hunt for an HIV vaccine between 2000 and 2018, the report suggests, scientists have access to infrastructure that has allowed them to aim for a Covid-19 vaccine by 2021, just over a year after the disease was discovered. The decades of research has also armed the scientific community with a deep understanding of the immune system that is proving key in the efforts to beat Covid-19.
At an advantage
HIV was first detected in humans in the late 1950s in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Many HIV-AIDS patients were discovered in Africa over the coming decades, but the disease truly received global attention after an AIDS epidemic was declared in 1981 in the US. In 1986, HIV officially got its name.
Two years earlier, in 1984, the authorities in the US announced that they were working on a vaccine that would be ready in two years, according to the WaPo report.
Thirty-six years since, humanity has amassed vast amounts of knowledge about how the immune system works and how to refine vaccine technologies to suit novel viruses.
The work into an HIV vaccine also led to the development of a global, collaborative network of laboratories, testing sites, and virology/immunology research infrastructure backed by billions of dollars in funding.
All of these resources and infrastructure were simply repurposed to begin efforts on a Covid vaccine, offering an unprecedented scientific advantage in terms of speed of research and commencing urgent clinical studies.
The WaPo report quotes HIV vaccine researchers and virologists as saying that “the investment in HIV research has made the response to Covid-19 possible”.
HIV vs coronavirus
HIV directly targets the immune system, and is much more complex in its functioning and attack than other viruses like rhinoviruses, influenza virus, or coronaviruses.
As the immune system is compromised by an HIV infection, it is harder for the body’s natural immunity to fight the virus, which is the mechanism for how typical vaccines work.
However, the vast majority of Covid-19 patients recover, although some sustain lasting damage, indicating that the immune system is able to fight off the virus. It is likely that nudging it in the right direction through a vaccine would help tremendously.
Thus, there seems to be more hope for a novel coronavirus vaccine than there is for developing an HIV vaccine.
While 100 HIV vaccine candidates did not make it through the early phases of testing, 46 survived preclinical and clinical stages of evaluation. Currently, there are only two candidate vaccines for HIV being evaluated in Phase-III efficacy trials, one in the US and another in Thailand.
By contrast, for the coronavirus, there are currently 140 candidate vaccines in pre-clinical evaluation and 23 in clinical evaluation. Of these, two are in Phase-III trials already.
Newer vaccine technologies from work on HIV
As traditional methods of injecting a weakened virus or a part of it in the form of a vaccine has been unsuccessful for HIV so far, vaccinologists have developed newer technologies that are now being repurposed for the coronavirus.
RNA vaccines, DNA vaccines, as well as viral vector vaccines (where a part of one virus is inserted into another) are all newer kinds of genetic vaccines that were developed as part of HIV research and are being used for Covid.
Most vaccine and drug candidates today are repurposed, which means they were developed for other diseases but are being tried for Covid.
Vaccinologists working on HIV started pivoting to the SARS-CoV-2 virus as soon as the genome sequence was shared by Chinese researchers in January.
The fact that the research into HIV vaccines has been so diverse, and all that diversity is now translating into Covid vaccine research, spells good news, increasing the probability of a favourable vaccine being found sooner rather than later, say experts.
Unlike HIV vaccine trials, which occurred one after the other, Covid vaccine trials are all taking place simultaneously. Authorities and experts have claimed repeatedly that the world could realistically have a vaccine within the next one to two years.
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