Five breakthroughs in the fight against HIV/Aids

While Covid-19 continues to storm the world, there have been huge developments in the fight against HIV/Aids. Here are a few.

This week, news broke that scientists have developed a vaccine that’s 100% effective at preventing severe Covid-19, and 94% effective at preventing the disease in general. It’s been developed in under a year by pharmaceutical company Moderna, giving us hope that life can return to normal somewhere in the future.  

But Covid-19 is far from the only disease on the block. December 1 was World Aids Day, which serves as a sobering reminder that another virus, HIV, leads to millions of deaths each year. No viable vaccine has been developed for it, yet, that’s because it’s way more complicated.  Professor Glenda Gray, President of the South African Medical Research Council, told health publication Spotlight: “It’s like comparing a cat to a jaguar. It’s a completely different beast, even though it is a virus.”

Even though there is no cure for HIV/Aids yet, some major breakthroughs have been made to treat and even prevent the virus. Here are some of the highlights: 

  1. The most recent development is an injection of the antiretroviral drug cabotegravir, which has long-lasting effects to prevent HIV, especially in women. The injection, if taken once every two months or every eight weeks, was shown to be 89% more effective at preventing HIV in cisgender women than Truveda, an HIV prevention pill currently on the market. Read more on that here. Professor Helen Rees, executive director of the WRHI, said: “This is the first time such a significant HIV prevention result for women has been seen.”  Cabotegravir also gives women who are at a high risk of contracting HIV a better choice – especially for those who struggle to take a daily tablet or don’t want to.   
  1. Children living with HIV have it much harder than adults. Spotlight reported that at least 800 000 children living with HIV worldwide were not getting the treatment they needed to stay healthy in 2019. Children who can access the right medication may still struggle to take it because the syrups taste bad and tablets are tough to swallow. Cipla, another pharmaceutical company, has launched an alternative called Lopimune. It comes in the form of a pellet rather than a bitter-tasting syrup, but with the same effectiveness. It’s just easier to take. Dr Precious Garnett, marketing manager and medical advisor at Cipla, told Spotlight: “A caregiver can put it in the child’s favourite food be it porridge, yoghurt or anything and the child eats it. That way we know children are not vomiting or spitting out the medication and they stay on treatment. Even if it is mixed with food we know it is still effective.”
  1. A new antiretroviral drug called TLD was launched just over a year ago. It has fewer side effects and less resistance. Because it is a combination drug, merging three existing drugs, it’s easier to use. It’s also more effective in suppressing the virus, according to health minister Zweli Mkhize. It’s also cheaper to produce, Daily Maverick reported
  1. There was a time when pregnant women who were HIV positive were at super high risk of transmitting the virus to their child. But that has changed, for the better. Prevention of mother-to-child transmission programmes have been hugely successful. Dr Leon Levin, head of the paediatric HIV programme at NGO Right to Care, told Spotlight that the transmission rate from mothers to their children has gone down from around 40% to under 2% at birth. That’s thanks to mothers who take their ARVs throughout their pregnancy. 
  1. Finally, there are currently three notable HIV vaccine trials underway. And the results look promising: 
    1. The Imbokodo trial: currently testing two vaccines for HIV to determine if they can prevent young women (between the ages of 18 and 35) in sub-Saharan Africa from getting infected with HIV. 
    2. The Mosaico study: testing the same two vaccines as Imbokodo, but with a different approach, to see if it can prevent HIV infection in cisgender men and transgender people who have sex with cisgender men and/or transgender people. This trial is expected to end in March 2024. 
    3. PrEPVacc: also testing two vaccine combinations which aim to prevent HIV in men and women between the ages of 18 and 40.

Read more about these vaccines here. 

While scientists and medical experts work hard to prevent us from contracting and spreading these viruses, safe sex and hygiene are still our biggest defences against both HIV and Covid-19. Stay safe.