No HIV vaccine yet but decades of false starts provide guidance to coronavirus researchers

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Credit: Kim Ludbrook/EPA

Thirty-six years [after the virus’s discovery], there still is no HIV vaccine. But instead of being a cautionary tale of scientific hubris, that unsuccessful effort is leading to even greater confidence in the search for a coronavirus vaccine, from some of the same researchers who have spent their careers seeking a cure for AIDS.

Those decades of research on HIV have taught scientists an enormous amount about the immune system, honed vaccine technologies now being repurposed against the coronavirus and created a worldwide infrastructure of clinical trial networks that can be pivoted from HIV to the pathogen that causes the disease covid-19.

Laboratories, testing sites and recruitment networks that were rushed into action against the coronavirus exist because of the enormous amount of money spent on HIV. Equipment and expertise are in place. Infection control has been upgraded. Regulators are engaged.

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A critical lesson from HIV, the University of Cape Town’s [Linda-Gail] Bekker said, is taking numerous approaches to a vaccine at the same time. HIV vaccine experiments often tended to be staged one after another, with the entire community waiting for the results of the best candidates. In contrast, numerous coronavirus trials are occurring simultaneously.

“If you want to do this quickly and you want to be sure you have a winner, then put a number of horses in the race that do a number of different things,” she said.

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