HIV Vaccine Awareness Day 2021
It has been nearly 40 years since the first reports of what would become known as "AIDS" were published. Forty years since a novel disease, unknowable and terrifying, began to spread across the world. And 40 years since science began its quest to put an end to this pathogen, which was named "HIV."
In the decades that followed, scientists, including my colleagues at Janssen, made tremendous progress against HIV and transformed it – for people able to access treatment – from a terminal illness into a chronic, but manageable condition. But even despite this incredible progress, a vaccine that could prevent HIV – the "Holy Grail" – has remained stubbornly out of reach.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. After HIV was identified in the early 1980's, the U.S. government announced that it believed a vaccine would be ready within just a couple of years. But the challenge proved far more significant than initially understood in part because of the virus’ unique ability to attack and evade the immune system, and a vaccine has proved elusive.
At Janssen, we're tackling this stubborn challenge head-on as part of our enduring commitment to make HIV history. HIV Vaccine Awareness Day – which we mark every May 18 – is an important opportunity to take stock of why the world still needs a vaccine, where we stand in our search and to pay tribute to the people who are working to discover what would be one of the most significant and impactful innovations in the history of human health.
First, the Need.
There can be no question that the world needs a preventive vaccine if we are to end HIV. Despite being preventable, 1.7 million more people contracted the virus in 2019, the most recent year for which data are available.i Many of these people belong to vulnerable and underserved communities and lack easy or reliable access to treatment and other healthcare services, a situation made worse by the many ripple effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Next, Where We Stand in the Search.
Our team at Janssen is making significant progress, even as our company also executes our comprehensive response to COVID-19. Our investigational mosaic-based vaccine regimen is the most advanced HIV vaccine in clinical development and is being tested in two large-scale efficacy trials sponsored by Janssen: the Phase 2b Imbokodo study and the Phase 3 Mosaico study. The Imbokodo trial completed vaccinations in July 2020, while Mosaico continues to enroll participants.
These trials are especially notable because of the broad geographies they include. They span four continents, with Imbokodo taking place among young women in five countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and Mosaico working with men who have sex with men and transgender individuals across North America, South America, and Europe. These are groups that are uniquely affected by and vulnerable to HIV, and it is critical they are properly represented and included in the search for an HIV vaccine.
Lastly, the People on the Frontlines.
None of the progress being made would be possible without the dedication, passion and expertise of people at every level of the HIV community. This includes so many of my own colleagues at Janssen, as well as those at valued partners like the National Institutes of Health, the HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the U.S. Military HIV Research Program, all of the health care workers running trial sites for our vaccine studies, and of course, the trial participants themselves.
The continued contributions of all these people – and so many more – are even more impressive considering the major challenges posed by COVID-19 over the past year. But the HIV community has rallied, as it did 40 years ago when faced with the emerging HIV pandemic.
I, for one, am so grateful for their unparalleled dedication. Thanks to the people on the frontlines, I believe that we will discover a preventive HIV vaccine in the years to come and that together, we will end this disease, once and for all.
Let's make HIV history.
i Global HIV & AIDS statistics — 2020 fact sheet. UNAIDS (2020). Available at
https://www.unaids.org/en/resources/fact-sheet. Last accessed: May 3, 2021