On World AIDS Vaccine Day, May 18, IAVI remains as committed to the quest for an AIDS vaccine as it was in 1998, when this day of observance was established to commemorate former US President Bill Clinton’s challenge to researchers to develop a vaccine against HIV. We are as committed as we were when, 13 years ago, world leaders established the Millennium Development Goals and included in their ambitious list a call to address the suffering caused by AIDS, halt the growth of the HIV pandemic by 2015 and begin reversing the tide of new infections. In the face of serious scientific and economic challenges—and acknowledging the remarkable progress that has already been made in the prevention and treatment of HIV and AIDS—we remain committed to the belief that the world needs an AIDS vaccine.
This day, we remember that there still exists a pressing need for such a vaccine as part of a comprehensive response to the pandemic. That need is most acutely felt in sub-Saharan Africa—where HIV has exacted its greatest toll—and among women, who are everywhere at elevated risk of HIV infection. This is especially true of young women: those between the ages of 15 and 24 remain twice as likely to be living with HIV as men of the same age. Indeed, HIV does not affect all people equally. Sex workers, male and female, remain at high risk of infection. And men who have sex with men are, on average, 13 times more likely than the general population to be infected with the virus. An HIV vaccine has the real potential to address the needs of these vulnerable groups. If deployed with other preventive tools, such vaccines could help reduce new infections to nearly zero in the long term.
Yet vaccine development has never been easy. Most vaccines used today to great benefit came to us only after decades of laboratory and clinical research. Scientifically informed trial and error are integral to this process. The recent news that a trial evaluating a regimen of two preventive HIV vaccine candidates was halted because it was unlikely to work must be considered in that light. Though that trial, named HVTN 505, fell short of its objectives, the effort was not wasted: researchers will learn as much from this setback as they have from others—and apply what they learn to improve HIV vaccine design.
Perseverance will be rewarded. Most HIV researchers now believe that the pertinent question is not whether an AIDS vaccine can be developed, but when that will happen, and how quickly such a vaccine will be rolled out. A similarly large trial completed in Thailand four years ago has already established that HIV can be prevented by vaccination. Though the protection recorded was modest, researchers are already planning trials that seek to improve on those results. Meanwhile, a number of novel AIDS vaccine candidates are being evaluated in early-stage clinical trials, and potentially game-changing vaccine concepts are advancing at a rapid pace in laboratories around the world. We must ensure sustained support for the most promising of these vaccine candidates.
Collaboration on a global scale has brought us to this promising juncture. On this day, IAVI acknowledges the valuable role volunteers and their communities, governments, policy makers, donors, industry, health professionals and academic researchers around the world play in that collective effort. We invite the international community to join us in celebrating their contributions and urge its continued support for HIV vaccine development as part of a comprehensive response to the HIV pandemic.