The Repeated Setbacks of HIV Vaccine Development Laid the Groundwork for SARS-CoV-2 Vaccines
The decades-long effort to produce a workable HIV vaccine has hardly been a waste of public and private resources. To the contrary, the scientific know-how acquired along the way has served as the critical foundation for the development of vaccines against the novel, pandemic SARS-CoV-2 virus. We retell the real-world story of HIV vaccine research - with all its false leads and missteps - in a way that sheds light on the current state of the art of antiviral vaccines. We find that HIV-related R&D had more than a general spillover effect. In fact, the repeated failures of HIV vaccine trials have served as a critical stimulus to the development of successful vaccine technologies today. We rebut the counterargument that HIV vaccine development has been no more than a blind alley, and that recently developed vaccines against COVID-19 are really descendants of successful vaccines against Ebola, MERS, SARS-CoV-1 and human papillomavirus. These successful vaccines likewise owe much to the vicissitudes of HIV vaccine development.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Eisner Health, the National Bureau of Economic Research, or any other individual or organization. The author has no sources of research support to declare. The author has received no direct or indirect remuneration for this article. The author discloses that a family member, M. Scott Harris MD, is chief medical officer of Altimmune, a biopharmaceutical company with two COVID-19 vaccine prototypes currently in development. The author has no financial or other interests in Altimmune’s products, and no one employed by or affiliated with Altimmune had any part in drafting or reviewing this article. Otherwise, the author has no actual or potential conflicts of interest to declare.