(Reuters) – At an ill-fated press conference in 1984, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler boldly predicted an effective AIDS vaccine would be available within just two years.
But a string of failed attempts – punctuated by a 2007 trial in which a Merck vaccine appeared to make people more vulnerable to infection, not less – cast a shadow over AIDS vaccine research that has taken years to dispel.
A 2009 clinical trial in Thailand was the first to show it was possible to prevent HIV infection in humans. Since then, discoveries have pointed to even more powerful vaccines using HIV-fighting antibodies. Now scientists believe a licensed vaccine is within reach.
“We know the face of the enemy,” said Dr. Barton Haynes, of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and recent director of the Center for HIV AIDS Vaccine Immunology (CHAVI). The research consortium was funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), founded in 2005 by the National Institutes of Health to identify and overcome roadblocks in the design of vaccines for the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS. NIAID’s funding of CHAVI ended in June.
Unlike many viruses behind infectious disease, HIV is a moving target, constantly spitting out slightly different versions of itself, with different strains affecting different populations around the world. The virus is especially pernicious since it attacks the immune system, the very mechanism the body needs to fight back.
“The virus is far more crafty than we ever thought,” said Haynes, who will outline progress in vaccine research at the International AIDS Society’s 2012 conference being held in Washington from July 22-27.
FIRST SIGN OF HOPE
Thanks to drugs that can control the virus for decades, AIDS is no longer a death sentence. New infections have fallen by 21 percent since the peak of the pandemic in 1997 and advances in prevention – through voluntary circumcision programs, prevention of mother-to-child transmission and early treatment – promise to cut that rate even more.