“A new HIV vaccine, based on the Moderna COVID-19 inoculation, has shown a 97% antibody response rate in Phase I clinical trials.”
Wait, what? How the heck is this not front-and-center on the TV network news? The moment I saw the news, I couldn’t help but remember the decades of fear and heartbreak — and homophobic hatred — that followed the rise of HIV/AIDS since the late 1970’s. I remember listening at the time to a right-wing politician on the radio in the Mississippi Delta expound upon how best to control the spread of AIDS. He was absolutely sure that what needed to happen was to test every gay man for the disease, and every one that tested positive would be sent to a camp to be kept isolated and away from the general population to prevent spread of the contagion. He didn’t say “concentration camp”. He didn’t have to.
I was somewhat uncomfortable with the idea, but I saw the logic and couldn’t argue otherwise. Of course, this was back when I was a strong conservative who couldn’t allow for anything other than two genders, each one hard-wired for attraction only to the opposite gender. I also thought the Village People were just a bunch of regular hetero guys like all the rest. Just goes to show the difference in access to information between rural and urban areas, doesn’t it?
Time passed, and HIV became a central part of the culture wars between conservatives and liberals. We conservatives had hundreds of jokes about people infected with AIDS, and laughed scornfully at celebrities who died of the disease. Liberals fought back with science, education, and protests like the one below held at the Washington Mall in 1987.
In the military, the policy was simple: get infected with HIV, and you’re out. I have to give the Navy a lot of credit here, for even in the Reagan era they strove to educate all hands on HIV and how to avoid it, and it led to an unexpected improvement in the service as a whole that I describe here.
But the key point was this: HIV seemed to be incurable, and the very idea of a vaccine was simply unthinkable. Instead, Big Pharma concentrated on treatment and made progress and money. A lot of money. While the cost of HIV drug regimens have dropped a great deal in the past twenty years, the drugs still cost thousands of dollars per month if one does not have access to the increasingly Byzantine maze of cost assistance and co-pays. Even worse, Big Pharma — ever the keepers of the goose laying that golden egg — has had little incentive to lower the prices or improve the service. But they are seeing dollar signs when it comes to HIV vaccines; after all, providing medication regimens to a few million infected is chump change compared to selling vaccines for billions of people.
This is why they assist and coordinate closely with organizations like the HIV Vaccine Trials Network, which is:
the world’s largest publicly funded multi-disciplinary international collaboration facilitating the development of vaccines to prevent HIV/AIDS. The HVTN conducts all phases of clinical trials, from evaluating experimental vaccines for safety and immunogenicity to testing vaccine efficacy.
One example of such vaccine trials is this one conducted by Johnson & Johnson beginning in mid-2019:
Some 3,800 men who have sex with men will receive a regimen of shots in a study that’s planned to be launched later this year, Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview. The agency and the HIV Vaccine Trials Network of testing sites will collaborate with J&J’s Janssen unit on the effort.
Two interesting facts pop out from that paragraph: the name “Anthony Fauci”, which likely sounds quite familiar to anyone reading this article, and “3,800 men who have sex with men”. I am not sure if I’m crossing a social line here, but last I recall, there are more women than men, women also contract HIV, and — being more likely to have children in the household —often face even worse consequences.
Still, the J&J HIV vaccine began Phase 2b trials in sub-Saharan Africa in July 2020, which indicates that there was at least some success in the Phase 1 trials. This vaccine uses AD26 — a adenovirus — to deliver the vaccine in such a way to train the body to fight an entire spectrum of HIV infections. AD26 was also used as the vector to deliver vaccines for the Ebola and Zika viruses. It was this research that enabled Johnson & Johnson to make a room-temperature vaccine for COVID-19 that requires only one shot, instead of the logistically problematic two-shot mRNA vaccines by their competitors. Moderna is beginning their Phase I trials using a vaccine based on mRNA delivery, but J&J has a significant head start. For those whose heads are spinning at seeing terms like “AD26” and “mRNA”, here’s the difference.
The key point, however, is this: for all the kudos we heap upon the scientists, virologists, and other researchers for developing the COVID-19 vaccine in record time, we must remember they all shared the advantage Isaac Newton identified when he said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This is only partly because they had many of the same tools and methods recently used to develop vaccines for Ebola, Zika, and HIV.
Why only ‘partly’? Because the lion’s share of the credit belongs to all those who lost friends and loved ones to HIV, who were publicly scorned and ridiculed by people like me, and who used their heartbreak and outrage to demand increased federal funding into HIV treatment and prevention. It was their refusal to suffer in silence that provided the impetus needed for Big Pharma, in all its mercenary capitalist glory, to do the research and to find the answers.
When you get your COVID-19 vaccine, remember the hundreds of thousands who marched on Washington for gay and lesbian rights, who laid that vast quilt on the Mall with all the names of those they had lost to HIV. Without them, you likely wouldn’t be getting that COVID-19 vaccine today.