Today is International HIV Vaccine Awareness Day.
Despite the progress that has been made to date, HIV remains one of the deadliest infectious killers: in 2014 the epidemic killed 1.2 million people, while a further 2 million contracted HIV. It is clear there is a long way to go before we realise Global Goals’ target 3.3 to end the epidemic by 2030.
Indeed, while critically important, existing tools are unlikely to end HIV and AIDS. Even with a massive scale-up of current and emerging treatment and prevention options, there will be hundreds of thousands of new infections every year for decades to come.
No epidemic has been ended without a vaccine. Vaccines are also smart public health investments – research indicates that a vaccine could halve the number of people needing treatment thereby reducing total HIV and AIDS response costs over time.
The current UK Government has displayed real leadership in investment in infectious disease research and development: before prioritising this issue in its aid strategy, published last November, it was already one of the largest global funders of Product Development Partnerships (PDPs) – public private partnerships that work to develop new diagnostics, drugs and vaccines. One such PDP is the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) working to develop a vaccine to prevent HIV infection and AIDS.
As part of its aid strategy, the Government outlined major new investments that it will make in research and development, with the creation of the Ross Fund, the Global Challenges Research Fund and the UK Vaccines Network. Significantly these funds are to be the responsibility of a variety of government departments, covering domestic and foreign policy, from international development to health and business, innovation and skills. This reinforces the title of the aid strategy – ‘Tackling global challenges in the national interest’ – but it also highlights that tackling epidemics which have a footprint in the UK, such as HIV, is in the interests of health security at home as well as abroad.
Moreover, given the UK’s wealth of expertise in science and technology, our research institutes are well placed to advance research and development in this important field. Last year, for example, while on a parliamentary delegation to Zambia RESULTS UK visited an IAVI clinic and laboratory that works in collaboration with the Human Immunology Laboratory at Imperial College, London. Again this emphasised the importance of tackling HIV and AIDS for the global north as well as south, and the shared learning that this can entail.
Research has achieved some remarkable results in recent years; with new vaccine concepts getting ready for clinical testing, with some about to enter late-stage studies and further promising new approaches in earlier stages.
Given the current political priorities and policy landscape in the UK, as well as the emerging science and technology, this International HIV Vaccine Awareness Day, we must renew calls for global action to develop a vaccine that will protect and save lives both here and overseas.