AIDS: years of research and still no vaccine

Published on: 12/01/2021 – 09:39

Despite tremendous advances in its treatment, AIDS continues to kill: some 680,000 people worldwide in 2020. The search for an HIV vaccine has not met the same fate as for Covid-19, due to the complexity of this virus and the lack of investment from pharmaceutical groups. The use of messenger RNA technology raises hope for researchers.

Several Covid-19 vaccines were found within a few months, but still none against AIDS after years of research. How to explain such a gap? Due to the nature of HIV, difficult to neutralize, although trials continue to finally overcome it.

Although on Wednesday, December 1, World AIDS Day is organized, it is clear that the fight against HIV has not had the same fate as for Covid-19. And despite tremendous advances in its treatment, AIDS continues to kill 680,000 people worldwide in 2020.

Since its discovery in 1983, the search for a vaccine against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which has the characteristic of weakening the immune system, has not failed. But this virus is, by its nature, particularly complex to decimate, the researchers say.

Endless mutations

HIV “infects the cells of the immune system” in the DNA that makes up its genetic material, Professor Olivier Schwartz, director of the unit of viruses and immunity at the Institut Pasteur, told AFP. This makes it much more difficult to locate because these immune cells, when not called, go through dormant phases during which the virus goes undetected.

Therefore, although a first infection against SARS-CoV2, which in most cases is cured naturally, helps to acquire immunity, this is not the case with HIV. Second, its variability is disproportionate to that of the coronavirus: “it mutates much more easily”, making it “more difficult to generate broad-spectrum antibodies that can block the infection,” emphasizes Professor Schwartz.

However, “we know how to get vaccinated against a variant fairly quickly, but not when a virus mutates too much,” stresses Nicolas Manel, research director at Inserm, team leader at the Institut Curie. Recently, the trial of a vaccine in sub-Saharan Africa, which was supposed to protect against several variants of HIV, ended due to an efficacy deemed insufficient.

Lack of investment by pharmaceutical groups

To find a vaccine, it will have to be “an important option, but the market is very weak today for pharmaceutical groups. We regret a flagrant lack of investment in this matter,” Nicolas Manel also points out. “Many researchers are very motivated, but they are doing it with the means at hand.”

The development of a vaccine remains a priori the only way to completely eradicate the virus, with which about 38 million people still live around the world.

While the coronavirus epidemic has had a very negative impact on the fight against AIDS, severely disrupting access to health systems, testing and treatment in many countries, researchers hope, however, that it will also allow progress, including vaccinations.

Several dozen HIV vaccines are currently being studied. One of them, launched this summer by the Moderna lab, is based on the messenger RNA technology that made their Covid vaccine so successful. “The use of this technology is a new door that opens, full of hope for viruses like HIV,” wants to believe Professor Gilles Pialoux, head of the department of infectious and tropical diseases at Tenon Hospital, a specialist in AIDS.

However, the final results should not be known for several years.

With AFP


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