An HIV Vaccine Is Just Around the Corner

By Madison Kahn

The White House’s North Portico decorated for World AIDS Day (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Just before Christmas, the FDA lifted a ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood, with one small caveat—donors were eligible only if they’d abstained from sex for a year. The ban’s been in place since 1983, when the U.S. first began to battle the HIV/AIDS pandemic and, in the two decades since, we’ve made significant if sometimes insufficient progress—both in our treatment of LGBT members of our society and toward an HIV vaccine.

Unfortunately, many proven HIV prevention measures still aren’t reaching enough people who are at risk of infection, with 50,000 new cases reported each year. Slowly, however, that’s beginning to change. Doctors and scientists are beginning to use treatment as a form of prevention through pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP. In May 2014, the FDA approved the use of a PrEP drug called Truvada, which reduces the risk of infection by 92 percent in those who do not have HIV but are at high risk of contracting it. “This daily pill has proven successful,” says Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). It will surely be implemented more globally next year.”

NIAID researchers have found antibodies that prevent most HIV strains from infecting human cells—and have learned how these antibodies and the virus co-evolve in an individual. Researchers have learned a great deal about how the first HIV vaccine to have modest success in people worked, and studies are under way to test HIV vaccine regimens that build on this success. “We are making considerable progress,” says Dr. Fauci, “in being able to delineate and dissect what mechanisms are the stumbling blocks in the body’s natural response to HIV.”

Dr. Fauci doesn’t believe the U.S. will have an HIV vaccine in 2015, but, he says, “we’re closer to one than ever before.”

Madison Kahn is Matter’s managing editor.