It’s hard to imagine a more game-changing medical advance than an HIV vaccine. And yet, it remains a feat that we have yet to achieve.
Yes, we have come a long way in tackling HIV: We have effective treatments to help manage the disease to hold the disease at bay and have turned HIV from a death sentence to a chronic disease. And a new report in the Lancet reveals that the work of the international community has resulted in a significant decrease in the number of HIV infections in children worldwide between 2002 and 2013. But living with HIV today means an entire lifetime taking medicines every single day.
The same Lancet report finds that new infections aren’t falling fast enough. More urgently, despite improvements in treatment, 1 million people still die from the disease every single year. To date, HIV has killed 40 million people overall. And in the developing parts of the world, HIV continues to wreak unacceptable havoc.
Ultimately, the best solution would be to have a vaccine that stops HIV infection in the first place. There’s just one problem: It’s an exceedingly difficult task to make one. Typical vaccines stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies against infection, but HIV, by attacking the immune system itself, makes this approach impossible. Moreover, the virus, already highly variable to begin with, mutates so fast that researchers have had a hard time keeping up with it.
The good news is that this massive challenge has unleashed stunning creativity in laboratories all over the world. The bold goal of stopping HIV — a virus that almost seems engineered not to be stopped — is motivating great science.
Bringing effective new drugs for HIV took a massive effort by the world community — international collaboration on an unprecedented scale between scientists in industry, academia, government, patient advocates and regulatory bodies. A vaccine will be no different — it will require collaboration of great proportion and that is why we are working on this vaccine regimen with the National Institutes of Health, five universities, three academic hospitals, three biomedical companies, and a variety of laboratories and research centers.
While we work toward the long-term goal of a vaccine, we are also pulling in partners from many sectors to improve prevention, treatment and access to options in the short term. These include efforts to develop new therapies that could ultimately help drive down infection rates, such as long-acting formulations, once-a-day pills and HIV prevention technologies for women, as well as innovative approaches to make our products as broadly accessible and affordable to people as possible.
As a young physician training in Africa, I confronted a terrifying new enemy — we didn’t even know it was HIV back then. Today, 30 years later, we have figured out a way to keep this enemy at bay and restore some semblance of normalcy for people living with HIV. But our work is not done. Every positive trial result reminds us that we can finish this work — and that we must finish this work, because millions of lives depend on it.
Dr. Paul Stoffels is the chief scientific officer and worldwide chairman for pharmaceuticals at Johnson & Johnson. He began his career as a physician in Africa, focusing on HIV and tropical diseases research.
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