Q: Why have scientists been able to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus but not for HIV?
A: More than 35 years after the HIV virus was discovered, the world still doesn’t have a preventive and effective HIV vaccine.
But the decades of work in developing an HIV vaccine have helped pave the way for the COVID-19 vaccines now available, said Dr. Barton Haynes, an expert in vaccine development who has spent decades studying HIV.
HIV is a more difficult virus to make a vaccine for because it mutates more rapidly than SARS-CoV-2 and because the human body is not able to mount a sufficient immune response to an HIV, Haynes said. But with SARS-CoV-2, however, the majority of people are able to.
“Fundamentally, the body doesn’t want to make the protective antibodies for HIV,” Haynes said. “And the body is happy to make protective antibodies for SARS-CoV-2, and that’s manifested by the fact that when people get infected with HIV they generally can’t fight off the infection. Whereas with SARS-CoV-2, most people control SARS-CoV-2 quite well, and that’s a really good sign for people like me, who are trying to make vaccines against endemic organisms.”
Most people who get infected with SARS-CoV-2 will not need hospital care, and some who get infected might not even notice any symptoms at all.
Haynes added that much of the research that allowed COVID-19 vaccines to be developed so quickly came from years of work trying to find a vaccine for HIV.
“Yes, this vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 was made very quickly,” Haynes said. “But it was made very quickly because of 15 or 20 years worth of work by the scientific community developing all the technology that was rapidly used to make the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine.”
Scientists developing the COVID-19 vaccines were both able to use new vaccine technologies as well as the clinical trial networks that exist thanks to HIV research, Haynes said.
“It’s laid on the back of the HIV vaccine effort which the government and science has invested a huge amount of time and money because it’s so difficult,” Haynes said. “Fortunately, for this coronavirus, the body wants to do the right thing and make the right antibodies. The techniques that have been difficult for HIV worked beautifully for SARS-CoV-2.”