HIV vaccine research: crisis of faith?

HIV/AIDS researchers are despondent over the waning prospects of ever creating an effective vaccine against the virus, according to a linkurl:survey;http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/the-independents-hiv-survey-the-questions-and-answers-814936.html conducted by British newspaper __The Independent__. But can it really be all that bad? "Most scientists involved in Aids research believe that a vaccine against HIV is further away than ever and some have admitted that effective immunisation

Bob Grant
Bob Grant

Bob Grant is Editor in Chief of The Scientist, where he started in 2007 as a Staff Writer.

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Apr 23, 2008
HIV/AIDS researchers are despondent over the waning prospects of ever creating an effective vaccine against the virus, according to a linkurl:survey;http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/the-independents-hiv-survey-the-questions-and-answers-814936.html conducted by British newspaper __The Independent__. But can it really be all that bad? "Most scientists involved in Aids research believe that a vaccine against HIV is further away than ever and some have admitted that effective immunisation against the virus may never be possible," __The Independent__ linkurl:article,;http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/is-it-time-to-give-up-the-search-for-an-aids-vaccine-814737.html which ran today (Apr 24), began. The trouble is that __The Independent__ polled only "35 leading Aids scientists in Britain and the United States" - not an especially large sample. The interpretation of their results also seems somewhat selective to this reader. The debate concerning the search for an HIV vaccine swirls around the recent linkurl:failure;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/53633/ of major clinical vaccine trials, and a subsequent NIH linkurl:summit,;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/54488/ where the research community decided to ratchet back its clinical research and focus more on...
ttp://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/the-independents-hiv-survey-the-questions-and-answers-814936.html conducted by British newspaper __The Independent__. But can it really be all that bad? "Most scientists involved in Aids research believe that a vaccine against HIV is further away than ever and some have admitted that effective immunisation against the virus may never be possible," __The Independent__ linkurl:article,;http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/is-it-time-to-give-up-the-search-for-an-aids-vaccine-814737.html which ran today (Apr 24), began. The trouble is that __The Independent__ polled only "35 leading Aids scientists in Britain and the United States" - not an especially large sample. The interpretation of their results also seems somewhat selective to this reader. The debate concerning the search for an HIV vaccine swirls around the recent linkurl:failure;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/53633/ of major clinical vaccine trials, and a subsequent NIH linkurl:summit,;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/54488/ where the research community decided to ratchet back its clinical research and focus more on the basic science underlying the disease. __The Independent__ article gives some statistics characterizing scientist responses from the survey: "...just two were now more optimistic about the prospects for an HIV vaccine than they were a year ago; only four said they were more optimistic now than they were five years ago." "Nearly two thirds believed that an HIV vaccine will not be developed within the next 10 years and some of them said that it may take at least 20 more years of research before a vaccine can be used to protect people either from infection or the onset of Aids." And - though the story doesn't define "substantial minority" and the survey doesn't specifically ask whether a vaccine could be developed at all - "A substantial minority of the scientists admitted that an HIV vaccine may never be developed." A look at the survey responses, a link to which __The Independent__ provided, reveals a slightly different story. The majority of scientists responding to the question, "Are you more or less optimistic about the prospects of an HIV vaccine compared to a year ago?" answered that they were neither more nor less optimistic about an HIV vaccine than they were a year ago. Similarly, the majority of respondents answered that they disagreed with the assertion that "money being spent on developing an HIV vaccine would be better spent on education and prevention." __The Independent__ posted some edited comments from scientists who participated in their survey. Respondents included linkurl:Guido Silvestri;http://www.med.upenn.edu/camb/faculty/gt/silvestri.html of University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who wrote, "We need more basic science to understand how HIV and the immune system interact, and particularly more studies of in vivo SIV infection in non-human primates." Silvestri also wrote that an effective HIV vaccine was "greater than 20 years" from being a reality. linkurl:Seth Berkley,;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/20040713/03/ president of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, also weighed in, writing: "While scientists don't know how long it will take to develop an AIDS vaccine, we do know that a vaccine is the only way to end a major viral epidemic. And there is scientific evidence to support the belief that an AIDS vaccine is possible." Some responses posted by __The Independent__ did voice doubt over the promise of an HIV vaccine. "Perhaps we will never have a true preventative vaccine," wrote linkurl:Samuel McConkey,;http://www.rcsi.ie/index.jsp?nID=774&pID=503 a researcher at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland's Department of International Health and Tropical Medicine. "One HIV infection does not prevent further infection: what I am saying is that there is no infection-acquired immunity. This is different from malaria, and most other infections for which there is a vaccine at present." A torrent of public linkurl:comments;http://blogs.independent.co.uk/openhouse/2008/04/have-your-sa-11.html#comments appeared on __The Independent__'s Web site in response to the article. Some posters voiced a denial of HIV's existence or the virus's ability to cause AIDS, while others posted screeds on morality, abstinence or homosexuality. Still others lent their support to the search for an HIV vaccine. What do you think about the future of an HIV vaccine? How about __The Independent__'s survey? Let us know in a comment.

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