The elusive HIV vaccine could be on the way, as Moderna is set to begin jabbing 56 adults in the first ever mRNA HIV vaccine clinical trial in humans.

HIV-AIDS has killed 30 million people worldwide since the virus first showed up in the early 1980s. And while the virus is no longer devastating communities here like it once was, and many are using PrEP drugs preventatively, HIV still remains the fourth leading cause of death in Africa. The world could still really use that AIDS vaccine that researchers have never quite been able to develop successfully, despite decades of trying.  

There had been chatter that the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna might show behaviors that, if the vaccine were tweaked somewhat, could be effective as HIV vaccines. And Moderna is moving forward on that front, as ScienceDirect reports that HIV vaccine clinical trials are now underway.

POZ reports that they’ll begin enrolling participants in September, and if medical literature is your thing, the Clinical Trial Registry submission can explain all this better than me. Moderna (and a few universities and research centers) have enrolled 56 healthy adults, ages 18 to 50, all of whom do not have HIV.  They will not be told “Now go have unprotected sex,” in fact, they will not be asked to change their behaviors at all. They will simply be monitored to see if their bodies develop antibodies that would prevent the spread of HIV.

The molecular details are as exciting as they are confusing to a lay person. You understand how the Delta variant brought a new version of COVID that transmitted more quickly. But that’s nothing new to HIV researchers, because the AIDS virus has been mutating like that for the better part of 40 years.

“HIV is not really one virus,” Dr. William Schief explains in the above video. “It’s really like 50 million different viruses around the world right now. We have to elicit antibodies that bind to specific patches on the spike that don’t change very much.”

He refers to these as “broadly neutralizing antibodies,” and the mRNA vaccines are like a “messenger” that tells your immune system what sort of antibodies to develop. The goal here is an antibody that nullifies HIV. They’re actually testing two different but analogous versions of the vaccine candidates, and we’ll know more when they complete the trial in the spring of 2023.

Yes, this is being run by profit-driven pharmaceutical companies who will charge you $2000 for $6 worth of drugs. And it is well-known that these companies knowingly allow people to get sick and die by not releasing new life-saving drugs until the patents expire on the old ones and  generic versions come out. But an HIV vaccine would be a milestone that cannot be overstated, even if the final approved version is still several years away.  

Related: The Photograph That Changed the Face of AIDS [SFist]

Image: CDC via Unsplash