Off the back of COVID, Moderna to start HIV vaccination trials

Off the back of their COVID-19 vaccine success, biotech and pharmaceutical company Moderna is looking to begin human trials for two new mRNA-based HIV vaccines as soon as September this year. The vaccination study takes its cue from the core mechanism used in the recent COVID-19 vaccine development which has been rolled out en masse globally. While most of the vaccines have a slight variation in terms of the mRNA strands that they are centred around, it has been largely accepted as the most effective way to work towards vaccinating that world against COVID-19 by getting the body to generate an immune-response to protect itself from the virus, and hopefully its variants too.

Before we go too far down the vaccination rabbit hole, it’s important to clarify what mRNA vaccines are and how they work. Firstly, mRNA vaccines stands for Messenger Ribonucleic acid vaccines and are a relatively new type of vaccine that was developed to protect us against infectious diseases and viruses such as COVID-19. Typically the vaccines that we are used to, work by injecting a very weakened strain or ‘inactive part’ of an organism, otherwise known as an antigen, that we are trying to protect ourselves against. This in turn prompts the body to create an immune response that is ultimately beneficial in preventing the contraction of that particular disease, or at the very least lessens the severity if or when you do. mRNA vaccines don’t work like this, instead “they teach our cells how to make a protein—or even just a piece of a protein—that triggers an immune response inside our bodies. That immune response, which produces antibodies, is what protects us from getting infected if the real virus enters our bodies.”

The vaccine gives our bodies a recipe in order to create what’s known as a ‘spike protein’ which is a harmless piece of protein that can be found ‘on the surface of a virus.’ It is important to note that a COVID-19 vaccine does not and cannot give you COVID-19 as there are no live viruses contained in the vaccine. Secondly, the vaccine cannot alter your DNA. In order for this to even be remotely possible, the mRNA would need to make its way into the nucleus of the cell, which it never does. With all of this in mind, it makes sense that one of the largest contributors to mRNA-based vaccinations would look to use the same methodology to tackle HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). However, this is something that scientists have been working on for decades, as HIV presents as a somewhat more complex virus to develop a vaccine around. This largely has to do with the fact that the according to Popular Science the “retrovirus becomes part of the human genome 72 hours after transmission. To prevent infection, high levels of neutralizing antibodies must be present at the time of transmission.” In addition to this, the HIV spike proteins have a clever way of concealing themselves from antibodies in the body too.

Therefore scientists believe that the best way to effectively target HIV through a vaccination would be to use more than one. The scientists are looking to achieve the desired immunization by attempting to “prime B cells that have the potential to produce bnAbs, a type of highly potent neutralizing antibody” says Karie Youngdahl, spokesperson for the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI). The vaccination development process will be a lengthy one and will be conducted over the next few years. The idea is to test the safety of the two different mRNA vaccines on a human test group consisting of fifty-six HIV-negative participants. This is an exciting first step toward addressing a pandemic that predates COVID and will continue to do so globally, unless an effective vaccination is developed.