While there is no vaccine for HIV, some researchers are pointing to the science behind the COVID-19 vaccine as a promising avenue of research.
What’s so important between the developments between the two vaccines is the message RNA technology, said Dr. Howard Grossman, staff physician at Howard Brown Health. Researchers have been looking into the mRNA technology for the HIV vaccine for decades, he added.
“It’s been so successful in terms of COVID creating a situation where the body thinks it’s seeing the virus and it’s actually just seeing proteins that have been placed on the surface of cells and creates this antibody response that is being tried in HIV,” Grossman said.
One difficulty with developing the HIV vaccine is the number of variants it has. While many have become familiar with mutations of COVID-19, like delta or omicron, its mutations are “nothing compared to HIV in regards to diversity,” said Ramon Lorenzo Redondo, assistant professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Northwestern Medicine.
In the meantime, scientists and advocates point to one crucial step in ending the HIV epidemic: increasing access to pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP, a medication highly effective in preventing HIV.
“We already have treatment as prevention, so people who are already HIV positive on treatment can’t pass the virus to anybody,” Grossman said.
However, there needs to be an increase in access to PrEP, said John Peller, president and CEO of AIDS Foundation Chicago. Currently, the medication is only available by prescription from a doctor or health care provider. The Foundation is pushing for legislation in the Illinois General Assembly to allow pharmacists to prescribe, dispense and administer HIV prevention drugs without a prescription from a provider.
Peller said this legislation this could address the health equity failure of Black and Latino people having less access to PrEP.
“If we’re going to end the HIV epidemic, we can’t be ending it for just white people — it’s got to be for everyone with a focus on Black and Latinx folks,” Peller said.
In addition to increasing access, Peller said there also needs to be stronger wrap around services for people, such as stable housing, access to food and employment.