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.