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Tackling Vaccine-Preventable Diseases: Challenges and Advancements

HIV Vaccine: The Holy Grail of Vaccine Development

And yet, if the story of vaccine development over the past quarter century has been one of slow improvements rather than big breakthroughs, the biggest breakthrough of all could be close around the corner. Dr. Kinch said the “holy grail” of vaccine development is an HIV vaccine.

“There is a lot of effort there, and that could be world-changing,” Dr. Kinch said.

Mark Feinberg, MD, PhD, could attest to that. The president and CEO of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative oversees a group that has spent the past 20 years trying to organize resources and collaboration to stop HIV infection once and for all.

“We’re closer than we’ve ever been,” Dr. Feinberg said. “I think that there will be a meaningful biological intervention that will have a significant impact on preventing HIV infection in the coming 5 years that will help bend the curve of HIV infection rates downward in a significant way.”

Viral treatment has already taken major steps forward, to the point that public health officials now say antiretroviral therapy (ART) can virtually eliminate the risk of virus transmission in patients with undetectable viral loads. However, on a global scale, the disease remains a massive problem.

Dr. Feinberg says that although all of those advancements have had an incredible impact on the lives of individuals living with the virus, they’ve also experienced an unwanted side effect: a decrease in the sense of urgency around finding a permanent solution.

“I think it’s made it possible for the AIDS epidemic to recede from public visibility for a lot of people and they think that the problem is now over just because it’s less visible,” Dr. Feinberg said. “But that’s not the case. The problem really continues to be a terrible problem. It’s just not in the headlines anymore.”

Feinberg isn’t alone in his feeling that an HIV vaccine remains an urgent need.

In fact, Anthony S. Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, stressed in a recent commentary that the development of an HIV vaccine is “essential” for ending the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

“Despite the remarkable gains in the treatment and prevention of HIV infection, development of an effective HIV vaccine will likely be necessary to achieve a durable end to the HIV pandemic,” he wrote.

That said, Fauci said an HIV vaccine doesn’t have to be 100% effective to bring about an end to the epidemic.

“In fact, modeling studies have suggested that if current treatment and prevention efforts are continued and an HIV vaccine that is about 50% effective is developed and deployed, millions of additional new HIV infections could be averted, and the pandemic could slow substantially,” Dr. Fauci wrote.

Big advances in treatment can