May 18, 2010
More people today have access to life-saving antiretroviral therapy for HIV/AIDS than ever before. Yet for every person who begins treatment for HIV infection, two to three others become newly infected. Treatment alone will not curtail the HIV/AIDS pandemic. To control and ultimately end this pandemic, we need a powerful array of proven HIV prevention tools that are widely accessible to all who would benefit from them.
Vaccines historically have been the most effective means to prevent and even eradicate infectious diseases. They safely and cost-effectively prevent illness, disability and death. We at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, have been working for more than two decades with our colleagues worldwide to develop an HIV vaccine, and this research continues to rank among our top priorities. National HIV Vaccine Awareness Day marks an opportunity to reflect on our progress, renew our commitment to finding an HIV vaccine, and personally thank the scientists, community educators, health care workers, and especially the many study volunteers who have dedicated their time and energy to this important endeavor. Only with the continued commitment of volunteers may we more effectively confront the global scourge of HIV/AIDS and pursue the goal of an HIV vaccine.
We have witnessed significant progress in HIV vaccine research during the past year. Notably, a major clinical trial in Thailand gave us the first indication that an experimental vaccine can protect some humans against HIV infection. With the participation of more than 16,000 volunteers, investigators found the vaccine to be 31 percent effective at preventing HIV infection. Although this level of protection is modest, it gives us hope that a safe and effective HIV vaccine is possible. The priority now is to try to understand how the vaccine induced protection against HIV infection in some individuals, and to build on those results.
The Thai trial demonstrated the power of large-scale clinical trials to advance HIV vaccine development and to answer fundamental scientific questions. Such trials are possible only through strategic partnerships among federal collaborators, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector. NIAID continues to pursue focused clinical HIV vaccine research through such partnerships.
At the same time, we are bolstering our commitment to the basic laboratory research that provides a foundation for future vaccine development. In the past year, scientists at NIAID and elsewhere discovered several new antibodies able to neutralize diverse HIV strains that circulate worldwide. These antibodies disable HIV by latching onto vulnerable sites on the virus. Some of these sites previously were unknown, so their discovery widens the field of targets that a vaccine could exploit. Current and future studies will determine whether scientists can develop HIV vaccines based on protein replicas of these targets, and whether the immune response to these vaccines might protect people from HIV infection. Many other studies also are under way to explore basic questions about HIV and its interaction with the immune system.
As we recognize recent progress in HIV vaccine research and hope for continued advances, we must remember that a vaccine alone will not end the HIV/AIDS pandemic. If an HIV vaccine is developed, it will need to be used in concert with multiple other scientifically proven HIV prevention tools. NIAID continues to support research into an array of investigational HIV prevention methods, including pre-exposure prophylaxis with antiretroviral drugs, microbicides, and expanded HIV testing and treatment with linkage to care.
Dr. Fauci is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Dr. Johnston is director of the Vaccine Research Program in the Division of AIDS at NIAID. Dr. Nabel is director of the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center at NIAID.