Moderna vaccine technology may finally help pave way for HIV vaccine

A man receives a vaccine from a doctor
Posed by models (Photo: Shutterstock)

A new HIV vaccine has shown remarkably promising results. Its developers are now turning to the mRNA technology used by biotech company Moderna for its Covid vaccine to hopefully get their HIV jab over the finish line.

The new vaccine has been developed by nonprofit drug developer International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.

They announced the results of a first phase clinical trial in early February, but the news only began to trend this week following a viral tweet (no pun intended) from vaccine specialist, Dr. Ayoade Alakija.

“WOW 😳 New HIV vaccine with a 97% antibody response rate in phase I human trials. This is the most effective trial HIV vaccine to date. It is based on the Moderna’s COVID vaccine. COVID tech acceleration could change Rx for cancer & HIV in future.”

It should be emphasized this is just the first phase of human trials, involving only 48 participants. However, that’s not stopped people from getting excited about the impressive result, and the fact this particular vaccine takes a new approach.

Related: President Biden vowed to end the HIV epidemic by 2025 – but how realistic is that goal?

It’s has been notoriously difficult to produce a vaccine against HIV because there are many strains of the virus and it rapidly mutates.

This new vaccine has been shown to produce a precursor to HIV antibodies in 97% of subjects. Rather than produce a specific antibody against a strain of HIV, it stimulates specialized blood proteins that can attach to the spikes on HIV viruses. This could theoretically disable them from entering human cells.

This is similar to the mRNA technology used by Moderna, which stimulates cells to naturally produce proteins that can prevent viruses from taking hold.

“This study demonstrates proof of principle for a new vaccine concept for HIV, a concept that could be applied to other pathogens, as well,” said IAVI’s William Schief.

IAVI will next partner with Moderna to take advantage of the specific mRNA technology the latter used to develop its Covid vaccine. They think this could significantly accelerate the pace of its own HIV vaccine development.

They also hope that if successful against a fast-mutating virus like HIV, the technology could be developed against other diseases, such as Hepatitis C, malaria – or even some forms of cancer.

“This is a very innovative approach to developing a vaccine that hasn’t been done before,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventative medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, to ABC.

mRNA vaccine technology did not appear overnight last year. It was built upon work done slowly over the past three decades. However, the Covid pandemic prompted a rapid acceleration in research, leading to the arrival of the vaccines now being rolled out around the world.

Although this latest news on a potential HIV vaccine is still in its early stages, it is hopeful and noteworthy. As writer David Z. Morris points out in a thoughtful piece in Forbes, it also hints at what miracles can be achieved when governments decide to throw large amounts of money at medical research.

Related: 5 reasons gay men should get the Covid-19 vaccine