Against the backdrop of an unprecedented collaborative global push to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, pharma industry executives and patient advocacy representatives at the BIO 2020 digital conference discussed the progress made towards developing a HIV vaccine and what developers of potential COVID-19 treatments and vaccines can learn from it.


Participants in the plenary session, “The Next Frontier in HIV Innovation: The Transition to No Transmission,” discussed the myriad of treatment and care options that exist in the absence of a HIV vaccine and the long road to travel to reach the goal of zero transmissions by 2030.


40 years later, we do not have an AIDS vaccine that is helping us contain this epidemic.

Dr Julie Gerberding, Merck


The astonishing speed at which vaccines are currently being developed and studied to fight COVID-19 offers a glimmer of hope as to what can be accomplished through international collaboration and laser focus. However, the fact remains that many other diseases are still without a vaccine despite decades of research.


Panelist Dr Julie Gerberding, Executive VP and Chief Patient Officer of Communications, Global Policy, and Population Health at Merck compared and contrasted the global race to develop a vaccine against COVID-19 to the long road to finding an HIV vaccine: “When you’re in the middle of the COVID-19 epidemic and you’re seeing the race of 130 vaccine candidates, 13 in clinical trials, and the incredible optimism and confidence that people have in a fast vaccine, I just have to go back to 1981 and that era and appreciate that 40 years later, we do not have an AIDS vaccine that is helping us contain this epidemic.”


Dr Gerberding, who previously served as director of the US Center for Disease Control went on to explain that, though a HIV vaccine has not been discovered, much progress has been made in the research of the disease, “What we did do was over time, really develop a foundational understanding of the virus and the host, which has relevance today in the COVID situation. But more importantly, we gradually developed druggable target after druggable target and drug after drug, to suppress this virus to the point where it’s not transmissible and it’s not harming people in the way that it used to. I think it’s miraculous, and it speaks to the power of science and innovation, but it also speaks to the concept of learning as we go and recognising that the first thing out of the starting gate isn’t necessarily going to be the answer.”


Mitchell Warren, executive director of AVAC, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to HIV prevention commented that though activists are putting all their efforts into advocating for a vaccine, the fact exists that one may never be developed, which has led to a variety of antiretroviral treatments and innovations in prevention.


Warren went on to emphasize that regardless of whether a preventative vaccine is discovered, the scale of treatment needed for those who are currently infected is enormous, “There is no one answer to this epidemic. Obviously, if we had a truly sterilizing immunity-based cure, we could [end it]. To truly end this epidemic, we will need treatment at scale. 40 million people are currently infected and needing treatment. Vaccines and other prevention do not at all negate the essential need to provide that treatment.”