HIV Structure: 1) gp120 glycoprotein; 2) Viral envelope; 3) matrix; 4) capcid; 5) integrase; 6) viral RNA; 7) reverse transcriptase; 8) glycan shield; 9) V1-V2 loop; 10) CD4 binding site; 11) V3 loop; 12) MPER
HIV Structure: 1) gp120 glycoprotein; 2) Viral envelope; 3) matrix; 4) capcid; 5) integrase; 6) viral RNA; 7) reverse transcriptase; 8) glycan shield; 9) V1-V2 loop; 10) CD4 binding site; 11) V3 loop; 12) MPER Illustration by Lisa Donahue

Why is a vaccine needed?

A preventive vaccine against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS, is a top priority for human health, and our best hope for a world without AIDS.

  • About 38 million people worldwide are now living with HIV.[1] Since the start of the epidemic, over 35 million people have died of AIDS, with roughly 680,000 new deaths each year.[1]  
  • There is no human example of someone clearing an HIV infection naturally. Fortunately, treatment known as antiretroviral therapy now exists. But in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC), millions of people living with HIV do not have access to treatment.[1]  
  • Vaccines have significantly reduced or eliminated a number of deadly infectious diseases. Preventive vaccines have been used for decades around the world. When manufactured and used properly, they are very safe, and it is more cost-effective to prevent diseases than to treat them. 
  • Vaccines are responsible for eliminating smallpox worldwide. Soon the same will be true of polio. More recently, a vaccine against a cancer-causing virus, human papilloma virus (HPV), was approved. We hope one day to be able to add an HIV vaccine to the list of diseases preventable by a vaccine.
  • While treatment for HIV infection and AIDS has dramatically improved, it is no substitute for prevention. Current HIV medications are very expensive, and they have many side effects.
  • Sometimes people develop drug resistance and have to change the regimen of pills they take.
  • Access to these drugs is not guaranteed, and some LMIC do not have access to the same medicines that are available in the US and Europe.
  • The rate of new infections around the world is greater than our ability to get treatment to the people who need it.

These days, there is also the option of using the drugs Truvada and Descovy to prevent HIV infection (known as pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP), and so it’s tempting to think an HIV vaccine is no longer necessary. PrEP is an important new addition to the existing methods of HIV prevention, but it is unlikely to be an option for everyone -- the pills are expensive, may cause side effects, and may not be accessible to everyone. [2] And not everyone likes to take daily pills.

Another prevention option researchers are studying is called antibody mediated prevention (AMP). If successful, this method could also provide protection. However, it will likely require regular injections or infusions, and may not appeal to everyone who needs protection. In addition, cost may be a factor, as with other prevention methods.

Vaccines remain the most efficient and effective way to eliminate an infectious disease. They are an effective, affordable and practical option.

HIV was identified in 1983. In comparing the time spent on preventive HIV vaccine research to other vaccine development timelines, the fact that we are still looking for a vaccine is not surprising; it took 47 years to develop the polio vaccine!

Finding a safe and effective HIV vaccine that will protect people around the world is a formidable but necessary task. HIV is a powerful opponent, but scientists are constantly learning from one another and using advanced technology to fight it. Scientific understanding continues to improve all the time. The HVTN is leading the effort to build on what we’ve learned so far, and planning for several large studies is underway..

Not a scientist?  The following pages will allow you to get familiar with the work of the HVTN, what we do, and how we do it. If you are a scientist, these pages may help you to communicate about what you do with study volunteers, friends, and family! 

Types of Vaccines

There are many types of vaccines, but all generally work by teaching the immune system to recognize and fight back against a disease-causing microorganism.

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How Vaccines Work

Vaccines work by either triggering a response to a virus or slowing down an infection. Worldwide efforts are ongoing to find the best HIV vaccine options in the laboratory and population.

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How Vaccines Are Developed

Scientists are constantly testing theories for how to make new or better HIV vaccines and prevention products. Ideas are from the best approaches tested and refined before an experimental vaccine is developed.

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Antibodies for HIV Prevention

Antibodies are proteins that are part of the immune system. Researchers have found that some people have rare HIV antibodies which work against many different strains of HIV. 

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Ethics of HVTN Trials

A number of internationally recognized codes of ethics have been developed since World War II to ensure the protection of human participants in biomedical research.

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