HIV paved way for Covid-19 vaccine development

HIV experts argue that HIV vaccine research undertaken in the past 40 years has helped accelerate the development of Covid-19 vaccine candidates.
HIV experts argue that HIV vaccine research undertaken in the past 40 years has helped accelerate the development of Covid-19 vaccine candidates.
Image: REUTERS/Juan Medina

Covid-19, which continues to claim lives around the globe, has taken the world by surprise just as HIV did in the late 1980s.

But HIV experts say that while both diseases have no vaccine to date, the contribution of HIV vaccine research and the knowledge built over the past 40 years cannot be understated and has helped accelerate the development of Covid-19 vaccine candidates.

“The speed at which the (2019 novel coronavirus) was isolated in a few days and the viral genome was decoded in a few weeks is unprecedented and truly remarkable.”

“In comparison, it took more than two years to isolate the virus that caused Aids. This time around, we benefited from the knowledge built over decades of the global HIV response. Several teams involved in HIV vaccine research have been able to promptly decode the viral genome, identifying key components to use in the design of a Covid-19 vaccine,” noted the International Aids Society (IAS).

In an article to highlight HIV Vaccine Awareness Day on Monday, the society also commended the “spirit of collaboration” that has built up around work to find a Covid-19 vaccine, describing it as “unprecedented”. The remarkable collaboration has been mostly from alliances and biopharma firms that had been involved in HIV, allowing for sharing of information.

“In the crowded race to develop a vaccine, several biopharma firms previously involved in HIV are now heavily investing in a Covid-19 vaccine. New alliances are facilitating the sharing of key reagents. Even if they do not all succeed, their efforts will contribute to improving design, platforms and approaches. There is much to learn that could eventually benefit the search for an HIV vaccine,” the society said.

As a result of the collaboration, some of the different technologies such as mRNA-based vaccines, which had been in pre-clinical stages for HIV are being trialled for Covid-19 and platforms to develop DNA and MVA vaccines, and are also being repurposed for Covid-19.

More than 50 different vaccines are under development for Covid-19, two of which are already being tested in humans, according to the World Health Organisation.

Among different candidates is a new player on the scene — the mRNA vaccines.

While traditional vaccines work by training the body to recognise and respond to the proteins produced by disease-causing organisms by introducing inactivated doses of the virus into the body to provoke the immune system to produce antibodies, in contrast mRNA vaccines trick the body into producing some of the viral proteins itself. They work by using mRNA, or messenger RNA, which is the molecule that essentially puts DNA instructions into action.

Two mRNA vaccines, one developed by US company Moderna and another developed by a German company, CureVac, are being tested to potentially prevent coronavirus.

IAS has noted that the HIV response has greatly contributed to the conduct of ethical research and led the development of the good participatory practice guidelines, and it’s important for design and conduct of trials to “heed the lessons from years of biomedical HIV prevention trials”.

“Some of these new technologies allowed for the rapid development of candidate vaccines at a fraction of the cost and time of more traditional processes — within weeks of receiving the sequence from China. If these are successful, they could be repurposed for the development of an HIV vaccine,” IAS said.


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