new hope

The Moderna HIV vaccine trials are underway

The diagnostician holds in his hand a positive HIV test.

Last week, Moderna made a groundbreaking announcement: Human trials for the experimental HIV vaccine are officially underway. Together with the nonprofit scientific research organization International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, Moderna has developed a vaccine that is designed to send HIV antigens to a recipient’s body in the hopes that it induces an immune response. By Jan. 27th, 2022, the two companies have inoculated their first human candidates.

“We are tremendously excited to be advancing this new direction in HIV vaccine design with Moderna’s mRNA platform”, said Mark Feinberg, M.D., Ph.D., president and CEO of IAVI. “The search for an HIV vaccine has been long and challenging, and having new tools in terms of immunogens and platforms could be the key to making rapid progress toward an urgently needed, effective HIV vaccine”.

How significant is this development to the long fight towards ending HIV? Keep reading to find out.

RELATED: FDA approves injectable form of PrEP given every two months

A Brief Timeline Of HIV/AIDS 

HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus that affects the immune system, destroying CD4 or T cells in its wake. When one’s CD4 cells are diminished to the point where one’s body can no longer effectively fight off infections, HIV turns into AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. A person with AIDS is severely immunocompromised and incredibly susceptible to life-threatening diseases.

HIV is spread via bodily fluids like blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and even breast milk, and some of the known methods of transmission are through unprotected sex, sharing intravenous needles, and through birth.

a health worker doing a finger prick test for HIV

The Beginning Of The HIV Epidemic

The first confirmed HIV-related death was recorded in Congo in 1959, but it wasn’t until the 1980s when HIV/AIDS became a full blown crisis in North America. Throughout the late 80s, the disease would ravage the queer community, killing thousands of gay and bisexual men, and thus becoming known as “the gay disease”.

Despite calls from the community to act on the AIDS crisis, government response was slow. It wasn’t until September of 1985 that then president Ronald Reagan acknowledged AIDS publicly for the first time. 

Progress In HIV Treatment 

By 1987, the FDA approved the use of AZT, the very first medication created for the treatment of AZT. However, AZT was by no means a cure for HIV/AIDS – it simply helped to slow the progress of the virus. 

By 1994, AIDS became the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 25 to 44, with the total number of AIDS cases reported surpassing 500,000. It was also around this time that the FDA approved the use of highly active antiviral therapy (HAART). The combination of drugs used in HAART blocks HIV from replicating at different points in its life cycle. 

Thanks to this groundbreaking discovery, the number of HIV-related deaths dropped significantly in the following years.

Today, people living with HIV (PLHIV) can take antiretroviral therapy (ART) for treatment. Like HAART, this involves taking a combination of medications that prevent the virus from multiplying and thus destroying the body’s T cells. Reducing the amount of HIV in the virus also reduces the risk of transmission. Today, if you have an undetectable viral load – that means the level of HIV in your blood is too low to come up in a viral load test – then you have no risk of passing HIV on to your partner.

Cropped view of gay couple holding mug with water and pre exposure HIV protection pills in hands

PrEP And The Future Of HIV Medication

Nowadays, you can also take medication to prevent yourself from getting HIV from sex or sharing needles. PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) comes in two types of medications and must be taken regularly to protect oneself from the risk of infection.

HIV Treatment Today

Despite these amazing advancements in medicine, HIV is still present today. 

According to the CDC, in 2019, 36,801 people were diagnosed with HIV in the United States alone. There is an estimated 1.1 million people living with HIV in the United States, and 65% of all new diagnoses said to come from male-to-male sexual contact.

But the latest news about the Moderna HIV vaccine trials is indeed very promising, signaling the dawn of a new era in HIV treatment. 

Utilizing technology used to develop COVID-19 productions, the HIV vaccine works by having messenger RNA (mRNA) deliver antigens to the body. The antigens elicit an immune response, teaching the body to fight off HIV cells and stop the virus from disabling B cells that help us fight the disease. 

According to Moderna president Stephen Hoge, “We believe advancing this HIV vaccine program in partnership with IAVI and Scripps Research is an important step in our mission to deliver on the potential for mRNA to improve human health”.

Fifty-six HIV-negative adults chose to be involved in the clinical trials last August. They just received their first shots last week at George Washington University’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

“We’ve seen promising proof of concept for germline targeting in IAVI G001, and this trial lets us take that approach to the next stage”, says Dr. William Schief, Ph.D., professor at Scripps Research and executive director of vaccine design at IAVI’s Neutralizing Antibody Center (NAC). “What’s more, we’ve been able to expedite production of clinical trial material at a remarkably rapid pace because of Moderna’s technology”.

Close-up of adult African American man looking away while receiving covid vaccine at clinic or hospital, with male nurse injecting vaccine into shoulder

The Bottom Line

As we’ve seen with the COVID-19 vaccine and countless other vaccines before, vaccines have been proven to be among the most effective ways of preventing and ending diseases. We have our hopes up that the Moderna and IAVI’s vaccine brings us a step closer towards eradicating HIV and AIDS. The virus has loomed over the LGBTQ+ community for long enough and taken far too many lives already. 

RELATED: CDC says gay and bi men of color still disproportionately impacted by HIV