Coronavirus

How HIV Research Paved the Way for the Covid MRNA Vaccines

Callaghan O'Hare | Reuters

Every Dec. 1, the world commemorates those who have died from an AIDS-related illness. Known as World AIDS Day, it serves as a reminder that there has been an ongoing pandemic for the past 40 years, pre-dating Covid.

The Covid vaccines were sequenced, developed and approved in the U.S. in record time, but that would not have been possible without decades of work by HIV researchers.

"Almost everybody working on Covid vaccines comes from the HIV world," said Mitchell Warren, executive director of AVAC, a global advocacy group for HIV prevention. "Moderna had been working on mRNA-based HIV vaccine before SARS-CoV-2 was even known to exist."

An HIV vaccine has eluded scientists for decades. The traditional thinking around vaccines is to mimic the body's natural immune response to a virus. The problem with HIV is the body's natural immune response isn't strong enough to fight the virus. This means a vaccine has to come at the problem in a different way. Scientists are hopeful that mRNA technology — the same technology used in the Covid vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech — could be a turning point.

Government funding is a crucial component of all vaccine research and development. Within a few months, Operation Warp Speed allocated $10 billion to Covid vaccine research and development. By contrast, between 2000 and 2020, the U.S. government contributed $12 billion toward HIV vaccine research and development. This funding frequently goes to private companies.

"Just about every vaccine that we get today was developed by some private company, even though the actual research and development may have been a shared enterprise," said Dr. Jeffrey E. Harris, a physician and professor of economics emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Public-private partnerships can have serious implications for who turns a profit and who ultimately gets access to the vaccine. Moderna and the National Institutes of Health are currently locked in a legal battle over a key patent for the Moderna Covid vaccine.

Watch the video above to learn what the success of the Covid mRNA vaccines means for HIV and who would profit from an HIV vaccine.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Dr. Jeffrey E. Harris is a physician and professor of economics emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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