A Tale of Two Interdependent Pandemics


September 30, 2020

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there have been over 20 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 and over 700,000 associated deaths throughout the world. These numbers are so staggering that most of society remains shut down until a safe and effective vaccine is brought to market. 

Having already claimed a significant number of lives worldwide, Covid-19 is one of the most acute global health crises many people – especially Americans – have ever faced. Because fully reopening society and repairing the economy is contingent on developing a vaccine (while taking the necessary precautions to prevent transmission of Covid-19), many Americans are just now coming to grips with what that process entails. 

Covid-19 is not only a force to be reckoned with in its own right; it could also make it more difficult to mitigate other public health crises. According to a recent analysis by UNAIDS, Covid-19 could drastically restrict the ability of low and middle income countries to access essential personal protective equipment (PPE) and antiretroviral medication used to treat HIV, which would lead to more than 500,000 additional deaths from AIDS-related illnesses in just a six-month timeframe.

It is estimated that over 75 million people have acquired HIV and over 32 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses worldwide. But since transmission rates are comparatively much lower in the U.S. than they are in the developing world, finding a safe and effective HIV vaccine is relatively low on the average American’s list of priorities – even though the U.S. is a major player in this global effort.  

When the Covid-19 pandemic became widespread, the HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN) implemented response strategies to keep research teams safe from Covid-19 infection while remaining steadfast in its scientific journey toward a safe and effective HIV vaccine. This raised many important questions about whether the pursuit of an HIV vaccine and the quest to find a vaccine for Covid-19 were mutually exclusive.

The COVID-19 Prevention Network (CoVPN) was formed by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the US National Institutes of Health to develop and conduct studies to ensure rapid and thorough evaluation of vaccines and antibodies for the prevention of COVID-19. The CoVPN was established by merging four existing NIAID-funded clinical trials networks: the HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN) based in Seattle, the HIV Prevention Trials Network (HPTN) based in Durham, N.C., the Infectious Diseases Clinical Research Consortium (IDCRC) based in Atlanta, and the AIDS Clinical Trials Group based in Los Angeles.

Recently, the CoVPN has been (and will continue to be) involved with all of the major Covid-19 vaccine studies, including those undertaken by Moderna, AstraZeneca, Janssen, Novavax and Sanofi Pasteur. Because the U.S. has been significantly impacted by Covid-19, with over six million confirmed cases and over 190,000 deaths to date, the need for a safe and effective vaccine to prevent and treat Covid-19 as soon as possible – without compromising the scientific integrity of the requisite clinical trials – cannot be overstated. Unprecedented times require unprecedented thinking and action. 

A safe and effective vaccine is impactful if it's taken by enough (70% to 90%) of the population to develop herd immunity. However a new survey of almost 20,000 Americans conducted by Harvard, Rutgers, Northeastern and Northwestern universities revealed that only two thirds of the general population would trust the safety of a Covid-19 vaccine enough to take it, and that number dropped below 60% in more conservative states.

Established vaccine trial programs, such as those for HIV, which have standardized rigorous and ethical testing in global populations, will be enormously beneficial in developing a safe Covid-19 vaccine that is generalizable to more populations and acceptable by diverse communities – especially those most impacted by the disease. At the same time, the unprecedented level of resources and unparalleled sense of urgency directed at finding a vaccine for the novel coronavirus could exemplify how we might also expedite the discovery of an HIV vaccine, saving millions more lives.   

Here lies a possible silver lining amid all of the death and destruction caused by Covid-19: Now that the U.S. is dealing with an illness that has the potential to infect the entire country, funding vaccine development programs that can not only produce a vaccine for Covid-19 but can also hone and refine the vaccine development process for all infections, including HIV and even future novel coronaviruses, should be a priority for Americans.


Aziel Gangerdine, HVTN and CoVPN Director of Communications
This article was first published by Forbes on September 21, 2020 and edited for the HVTN “Our Stories” page

Aziel is an official member of the Forbes Communications Council, 2020