When COVID broke out in 2019, the whole world was petrified. Everyone came together to find the best possible ways to fight the infection. Within a matter of months, various vaccines were made and the struggle with COVID transformed into a fight against COVID.
With COVID under control, we can target the life-threatening disease we have been living with for years, AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). It is a chronic disease caused by HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) which deteriorates the immune system’s ability to fight any illness or infection entering our body.
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How close are we to an AIDS vaccine?
Jassen Pharmaceuticals, a division of Johnson & Johnson has been working towards developing a vaccine for the past four decades, however last week they announced that they have discontinued the trial for developing the vaccine since it failed to prevent infection in the vaccinated.
The trial discontinuation almost leaves us with a blank slate in our fight against HIV, with no solid lead for a medicine to cure the infection.
Scientists have been successful in developing various treatments which can help a person suffering from AIDS live a longer and healthier life. These advancements include antiretroviral medication (ART), which suppresses the virus; pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) drugs to prevent HIV transmission into an unaffected person.
According to UNAIDS, a United Nations program on HIV/AIDS out of 38 million HIV-infected people, 29 million have access to life-saving drugs.
Advancement in medical science has led to a better understanding of AIDS and its treatment, but developing a vaccine could help us tackle the spread of this disease.
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Why is it so challenging to develop a vaccine?
One of the main reasons is the difference in the mutation rate of the COVID virus and HIV. Scientists could track and study the most infective variants of COVID (Alpha, Beta, Delta, Omicron and the other subvariants). However, with HIV, we have not had the same success. HIV mutates at a much faster rate than any other virus. Even if we develop a vaccine for one particular variant, by the time we can use it, HIV would have mutated a hundred times into a new strain. It changes itself so fast that we haven’t been able to figure out a way to study it, an unknown enemy is far more lethal than a known enemy.
Another reason could be that a vaccine’s job is to teach our immune system how to fight a virus faster and more effectively. COVID vaccines expose our bodies to ineffective virus elements and teach our bodies to develop antibodies against it. Our body saves this memory in case we get exposed to the virus in future, but this hasn’t been possible for HIV yet. HIV corrupts our immune system which is then not able to judge the nature of the virus, and slowly the virus takes over white blood cells.