The elusive search of HIV vaccine lingers on 40 years later

The development of Covid-19 vaccine, in record time last year, is intensifying questions why an HIV vaccine has remained hard to get four decades since the first case was reported.

Over the years, however, scientists have made significant strides in HIV treatment and today it is no longer a deadly disease, but rather a manageable one.

A total of 38 million people globally are currently living with the virus with Africa playing host to the highest number at 25.7 million, or 69 per cent of the total caseload.

Nearly 35 million people have succumbed to the disease globally.

In February, a modelling study revealed that Africa’s ability in HIV testing and condom use is at 12.1 per cent and 28.5 percent respectively.

The Sub-Saharan regions of Eswatini, Lesotho and Botswana have the highest rates of HIV. In 2019, Eswatini had the highest prevalence of HIV with a rate of 27 per cent. Neighbouring countries such as Zimbabwe have significantly decreased HIV prevalence.

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About 1.5 million Kenyans are living with HIV/AIDS with women registering a high number of infections compared to men.

United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) is urging Kenya to prioritize domestic financing for national programmes aimed at combating the disease.

“Kenya requires innovative alternative sources for HIV resources to reach many people and also help suppress the spread of the virus,” Medhin Tsehaiu, UNAIDS country director for Kenya said at a forum in Nairobi.

She said the current funding model towards prevention and treatment of the disease that relies heavily on goodwill from donors is no longer sustainable hence the need to mobilise resources locally.

She added that additional domestic funding can easily be achieved in collaboration with the private sector and philanthropists.

Meanwhile, more people than ever now have access to antiretroviral therapy or ART, which when taken as prescribed suppresses the virus load in the body, keeping people healthy and unable to transmit HIV to their partners.

Beyond ART, people at high risk for infection can now get pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, a pill taken every day that reduces the risk of infection by 99 per cent.

According to Hanneke Schuitemaker, global head of viral vaccine discovery at Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Vaccines, “access to medication is not organized in every part of the world.”

Efforts to develop a vaccine have been going on for decades but have so far all ended in failure.

J&J is currently carrying out two human efficacy trials for its HIV vaccine candidate, and initial results from one of them may come as early as the end of this year, Schuitemaker said.

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Last year, a study dubbed Uhambo in South Africa and that involved a vaccine candidate that potentially offered some protection against the virus ended in failure.

The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative and Scripps Research recently announced results from an early-stage trial showing their mRNA vaccine candidate, developed with Moderna, stimulated the production of rare immune cells that create bnAbs.

Efficacy trials are still a long way off, but with hope that the mRNA technology, which turns the body’s cells into vaccine factories and has proven its worth against COVID-19, can make the difference.

Currently, there is no vaccine or cure for HIV, but there are effective drug treatments that enable most people with the virus to live a long and healthy life.

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