Another HIV vaccine trial in humans launched this week -- here's why it still has a long way to go

Over the past 35 years, the way researchers have approached HIV has shifted.

Now, with advancements in the way HIV is treated, the focus has shifted earlier and earlier on prevention efforts.

Business Insider spoke with Johnson & Johnson’s chief scientific officer Paul Stoffels, whose company is working on trials for an HIV vaccine, as well as a long-acting injectable form of HIV medication that could replace daily pills with a shot taken on a monthly basis.

But the HIV vaccine is a particularly tricky approach to tackle. The HIV vaccine has been elusive over the past few decades, despite tons of research and money spent on the problem.

“We’re making vaccine research the highest priority of anything that we’re doing. More money is going towards [the vaccine] than any other component of HIV research,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told BuzzFeed News last year.

J&J is one of the companies working on a vaccine. It’s something the company’s been working on for more than a decade. And on Tuesday, it announced that it had fully enrolled one phase 1/2a trial that recruited 400 volunteers from South Africa, Rwanda, Uganda, Thailand, and the US. The company on Tuesday also started enrolling a second phase 1/2a trial. The vaccine will be given as a series of injections over the course of a year. The goal of these earlier trials will be to figure out if the vaccine is safe, and if so, what’s the best way to administer the vaccine.

Right now, Stoffels said, it’s too early to predict what an HIV vaccine would look like: It could be just one set of shots you get at one point in your life, or it is possible you might need follow-up booster shorts later down the line.

“That would take more research, to figure out if years from now would we have to boost,” he said. “It’s not impossible, but at the moment, it’s too early to predict.”

For now, the important thing is to keep plugging away at these earlier-stage trials that will judge the vaccines’ safety and tolerability as well as its ability to provoke an immune response. If that works out, companies can begin to think about what a late-stage trial that gears up for an approval will look like.

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