Monday, 18 May 2020

Quest For A Vaccine

2020 has turned into one of those historic years. The covid-19 pandemic has changed everyone’s life, and they may never be the same in our life time. The lgbt community has some insight into the impact of a sudden appearance of a deadly virus with the effects of HIV in the 1980s. What unites both pandemics is the search for a vaccine and a possible cure. One is also helping to treat the other.

While we hope a vaccine for covid-19 will be found we turn our attention today to the search for a vaccine for HIV and AIDS, because today is World AIDS Vaccine Day, or HIV Vaccine Awareness Day.

World AIDS Vaccine Day has its origin is a speech made by President Bill Clinton on this date in 1997. He was invited to give the speech at the graduation ceremony at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland. Clinton’s speech wasn’t solely about the search for an AIDS vaccine. The oft-quoted line within it which launched the World AIDS Vaccine Day is: “Only a truly effective, preventative HIV vaccine can limit and eventually eliminate the threat of AIDS.” A few moments later he continued: “Today, I’m pleased to announce the National Institute of Health will establish a new AIDS vaccine research center dedicated to this crusade. And next month at the Summit of the Industrialised Nations in Denver, I will enlist other nations to join us in a worldwide effort to find a vaccine to stop one of the world’s greatest killers.”

The new vaccine research centre, based mainly in Bethesda, Maryland, was set up shortly afterwards. At the Summit of the Eight (the G7 nations and the EU) in Denver in June a communique was released promising better international co-ordination and to provide resources to accelerate vaccine research.

The history of the search for an HIV vaccine is long and full of scientific terminology that I cannot do justice to here. Instead I’ll look at a couple of research programmes. Of course, the search began long before President Clinton’s speech.

HIV is a particularly tricky virus to develop a vaccine for because there are so many strains and it evolves so quickly. The HIV DNA sequence can even change within infected human cells. Early hopes for a vaccine were frequently dashed as trials proved to be ineffective. Scientists first estimated that one would be available within 5 years, and here we are nearly 40 years later without one.

One of the earliest hopes for a vaccine came from veterinary science. In 1969 Dr. William Jarrett, Professor Veterinary Pathology at Glasgow University, discovered a virus that causes cancer in cats. He called it FeLV (feline leukemia virus).

Over in the USA in the 1980s FeLV researchers noticed that some cats exhibited wasting symptoms that were being seen in gay men who had developed a new disease. For that reason Dr. Robert Gallo of the national Cancer Institute began looking at FeLV to see if there was a link to the human cases. Gallo discovered there was a human version of the virus which he named HTLV-III (human T-lymphotropic virus-III). After further research this name was abandoned in favour of HIV. Because Dr. Jarrett had developed a FeLV vaccine Dr. Gallo believed it could lead the way in developing an HIV vaccine. Tests and trials proved unsuccessful.

The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) was formed in 1996, the year before President Clinton’s speech. It was set up following a meeting arranged by the Rockerfeller Foundation in 1994 in Bellagio, Italy, involved 24 of some of the leading authorities and researchers on HIV. The IAVI founder, Dr. Seth Berkley, states that vaccine research was not being funded adequately at the time. With the support of 70 organisations Berkley added his voice to President Clinton’s and was another influence on the communique from the Group of Eight Summit.

There have been many tests and trials over the years, and many different medical angles have been investigated. In 2018 I wrote about the possibility that cow cells could give scientists at IAVI a clue to finding one area of research.

Until a vaccine is developed the world must rely on prevention, treatment and drugs. Just two months ago HIV drugs began to be tested on volunteer covid-19 patients in the hope that they will ease the symptoms or even stop the virus from replicating.

With covid-19 dominating the way we love our lives at the moment lets hope that vaccines for both covid and HIV can emerge soon.

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