Two new HIV vaccines will soon undergo their first testing phase. If successful, Moderna could reach the “first base” stage in creating an effective HIV vaccine.
The National Institute of Health’s clinical database has reported that Moderna, the biotech company behind one of the COVID-19 vaccines, will begin its first testing phase for a new HIV vaccine. The human trials, which are due to begin in September, will test two new vaccines that are based on Messenger RNA (mRNA) technology.
Moderna’s first tests will include 56 participants between the ages of 18 and 50, who are not currently diagnosed with HIV. The first testing phase is meant to study how the immune system reacts to the antibodies and whether the vaccine will be able to achieve a ‘neutralisation’ of HIV.
HIV is a sexually transmitted virus that currently has no cure. The NZ AIDS Foundation (NZAF) reported that currently, 2839 people in New Zealand are known to be receiving treatment for HIV. The transmission of bodily fluids through sex is one of the most common ways of spreading the virus. Students are in a higher risk group for acquiring the virus due to the likelihood of students having multiple sexual partners, and unprotected sex.
Dr Peter Saxton, a senior researcher and lecturer at the University of Auckland, told Craccum that effective HIV prevention options have recently undergone a revolution. “Students and young people can now choose which suits them best, from the familiar condom to newer biomedical options like pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).” PrEP is a single tablet that can reduce the risk of HIV transmission by up to 90% for people who are at high risk of HIV. A PrEP prescription can be given by your doctor or health care provider, as long you test negative for the HIV virus.
Effective treatment means that people living with HIV can live long healthy lives without the fear of transmission. Despite this, people living with HIV often face discrimination and prejudice due to stigma, which contributes to self-negativity. Stigma surrounding HIV has come from HIV often being acquired through unprotected, casual sex. Homophobia is also a prevalent factor contributing to the stigma surrounding HIV, as gay men are overrepresented in HIV cases.
Saxton says that it is important to remove this stigma within New Zealand. “We can all play our part in eliminating HIV and sexuality stigma by correcting misinformation and calling out microaggressions. That way, everyone who needs HIV prevention options can feel supported rather than ashamed or embarrassed.” One of the personal stories published on the NZAF website states that the stigma is worse than the virus. “You can live with the virus… but the stigma will kill you emotionally”.
The vaccine aims to achieve the same results as Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine that is available overseas, and shows efficacy rates of up to 94% in certain populations. Currently, an effective HIV vaccine does not exist due to the diversity in strains of the virus and the way in which the virus attacks the immune system. Vaccines for other viruses are able to protect against complete infection and limit the contagion, whereas an HIV vaccine would need to provide a complete barrier of sterilisation against the virus.
Robin Shattock, an Immunologist at Imperial College London, told Smithsonian magazine that even if Moderna’s vaccine is successful, working towards a cure for HIV will be a lengthy process. “If the new vaccine passes the first phase, it gets you to first base, but it’s not a home run… the mRNA technology may be key to solving the HIV vaccine issue, but it’s going to be a multi-year process.”
If you need support with your sexual health, you can visit: https://www.auckland.ac.nz/en/on-campus/student-support/personal-support/student-health-counselling/self-help-resources/sexual-health.html
For further information regarding HIV, you can visit: https://www.nzaf.org.nz/awareness-and-prevention/hiv/hiv-in-nz/