The same technology used to develop the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines is being tested to prevent HIV.
“The whole idea is very similar to the emergence of COVID vaccines,” said Dr. David Diemert of George Washington University. “It's to produce antibodies in the person who gets the vaccine that will then interfere with the virus if that person ever comes into contact with the virus and to prevent infection.”
GW is one of four test sites in the country that are vaccinating healthy adults with an experimental HIV vaccine using messenger RNA technology.
Messenger RNA vaccines deliver instructions, training cells to make a protein that primes the immune system, producing antibodies that will protect from infection if the real virus enters the body.
“It really was groundbreaking and it proved that the technology works, it’s safe,” Diemert said.
The technology has been pivotal during the pandemic, and scientists are hopeful it could help end the HIV epidemic, too.
“You want to prevent somebody from getting HIV in the first place … and that's what this vaccine is all about,” said Dr. Jeffrey Bethony.
He said the research is promising with studies showing how effective this type of technology can be.
“The good thing about COVID, I think it made us go to mRNA quicker than I think we normally would have,” he said. “This is how that paved the way for us. There was a lot of safety data.”
Doctors say the HIV vaccine is the first of its kind and it will take several years to determine if it’s successful, but the payoff is promising.
“A vaccine would just be the answer to a lot of people's prayers, I think, for ending this pandemic of HIV,” Diemert said.
More than a million people in the U.S. live with HIV, including 12,000 people in D.C.
GW is still enrolling volunteers for the clinical trial. Adults have to be HIV-negative to take part.
The study is in collaboration with Moderna and funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
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