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Two huge things happened last week in the world of HIV research and one involves a possible new HIV vaccine.
First, the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S. finally admitted that if an HIV-positive person is undetectable — that is, taking medications that reduce the amount of HIV in the blood to levels so low that the virus can’t be detected by an HIV test — than it’s virtually impossible to transmit the virus. Science demonstrated this already through the historic HPTN 052 study, but the CDC admitting it is a huge step towards informing the public, dispelling HIV-phobia and encouraging more people living with HIV to take anti-retroviral medications to become undetectable.
The second new development was that U.S. pharmaceutical and health care product company Johnson & Johnson announced their plan to start testing an HIV vaccine on humans, making it the first HIV vaccine ever to reach human trials. The company reports that an initial trial of 350 volunteers showed that the vaccine was 100% effective at granting immunity against all strains of the virus.
The Gates Foundation — the humanitarian organization created founded by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda — and the National Institute of Health will now help administer the vaccine to 2,600 young women between the ages of 18 and 35 in five African countries. The women are considered the most at-risk population to contract HIV in African countries, however gay men, the most at-risk group in the U.S. and other countries, are being left out of the trials.
Paul Stoffels, Chief Scientific Officer of Johnson & Johnson said:
For the past ten years, we have been working on an HIV vaccine, using an innovative technology platform, the same technology we are using to make vaccines for Ebola and Zika. As a scientist and a physician, I can tell you, this vaccine holds the promise of groundbreaking development.
We all know that science is unpredictable, but these results make me more optimistic than ever that we will get to a vaccine in our lifetime and prevent people from contracting HIV forever.
Stoffels made the announcement onstage at the Global Citizen Festival in New York City alongside Whoopi Goldberg and Hugh Jackman.
Here’s video of Stoffels announcing the new HIV vaccine at the festival:
Johnson and Johnson would like to get the vaccine on the market by 2022. Considering that an estimated 36.7 million people in the world are currently living HIV, such a vaccine would have an immediate impact on the global HIV rate by helping reduce transmissions.
However, it’s worth asking who would have access to the vaccine if it proves successful. Anti-retroviral medications and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) remain out of reach for thousands of people who cannot afford them.
Furthermore, doctors are reluctant to prescribe PrEP for to their patients (even those who could benefit from it most), and sex-phobic parents could prevent their kids from getting an anti-HIV vaccine, even if it was available, unaware that their kid is gay or having sex.
Featured image by shironosov via iStock