People are receiving Covid-19 vaccines less than a year after public health authorities discovered SARS-CoV-2, the deadly new coronavirus. How did it happen so quickly? In part, the world can thank decades of frustrating and often fruitless research to find a vaccine for Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Many of the new technologies and approaches employed to create potent Covid-19 vaccines and therapies trace their origins to the desperate search, starting in the early 1980s, to slow the spread of HIV.
AIDS has claimed 33 million lives to date, and 38 million people are currently living with HIV. There is still no vaccine. But since 1982, the U.S. has invested more than $76 billion in lifesaving treatments, quietly revolutionizing the development of vaccines and therapies for other viruses, including the coronavirus.
“Everything we do with every other pathogen spins off of things we’ve learned with HIV,” said Anthony Fauci, a leader in HIV research as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984.
Scientists haven’t yet been able to develop an effective AIDS vaccine, partly because HIV is one of the most cunning, complex pathogens ever encountered. Like the coronavirus, HIV has a spike or envelope protein that binds to receptors on the surface of cells, but in HIV it doesn’t stay intact long enough to be efficiently attacked by the immune system.
Over decades of work, however, HIV researchers developed a better understanding of the complex workings of the immune system. They mapped out in detail how HIV invades cells and replicates, and identified weak spots in the virus that can be targeted by drugs. Using X-ray crystallography and later electron microscopy, combined with computer modeling, researchers created highly detailed three-dimensional images of proteins on the surface of HIV. The idea was to use the images to engineer antigens, molecules that generate an immune response and prompt the body to mount a defense against the virus.