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Experimental HIV vaccine, based on Moderna’s mRNA technology, now in clinical trial

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/1/2022 Ellen Francis
An entrance to a Moderna building in Cambridge, Mass. © Bill Sikes/AP An entrance to a Moderna building in Cambridge, Mass.

Researchers have started administering doses of an experimental HIV vaccine that uses the breakthrough mRNA technology in Moderna’s coronavirus shot.

U.S. biotech firm Moderna and the nonprofit International Aids Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) are exploring the use of mRNA technology, which prompts the body to make a protein that triggers an immune response (the technology also is used in Pfizer’s coronavirus shot). Researchers will monitor 56 HIV-negative adults for six months in the Phase 1 clinical trial, typically the first step in a long road to study the safety and efficacy of a vaccine.

George Washington University, one of the sites where the trial is taking place, described it as the first human trial of a mRNA-based HIV vaccine.

Nearly four decades of research and advocacy have produced medications that transformed HIV into a manageable virus, although there still is no vaccine to help prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths a year. Dozens of attempts have been abandoned before preclinical or clinical stages of evaluation, but the HIV research helped hone technologies that were repurposed against covid-19.

Decades of research on an HIV vaccine boost the bid for one against coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic has marshaled global resources, and billions of dollars from governments and private companies, into research into coronavirus vaccines, which were fast-tracked and developed in record time.

Scientists have sought to harness that momentum in the long-standing battle against other threats. In October, the World Health Organization endorsed the world’s first malaria vaccine for use in children — production of that vaccine was slowed by the difficulty of targeting a parasite and securing funding to prevent a disease most destructive in poorer parts of the world.


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Last year, a broad study that had raised hopes of a vaccine for HIV ended in failure after an interim analysis showed it was no more effective than a placebo. It was the seventh full-scale human trial of a vaccine for HIV, which newly infected 1.5 million people worldwide in 2020, according to U.N. data.

HIV integrates itself into the body’s cells, meaning a vaccine has to start working immediately to rout it.

The new trial in the United States, which Moderna announced began on Thursday, will test a hypothesis that delivering HIV immunogens — proteins that elicit an immune response to HIV — through mRNA technology can spur the body to produce antibodies that neutralize a range of HIV variants.

This “is widely considered to be a goal of HIV vaccination, and this is the first step in that process,” the company said in a statement. Forty-eight participants will get one or two doses of the vaccine, with 32 of them also taking a booster shot. The other eight volunteers will receive only the booster.

“The search for an HIV vaccine has been long and challenging, Mark Feinberg, the president of IAVI, said in a statement. “Having new tools in terms of immunogens and platforms could be the key to making rapid progress toward an urgently needed, effective HIV vaccine.”

Read more:

Trial of promising HIV vaccine fails in South Africa

Malaria is far deadlier in Africa than the coronavirus. Why is the vaccine taking so long?

Moderna’s chief expects enough vaccines for everyone by next year. Much of the world is still waiting.

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