Sixteen years ago, on HIV Vaccine Awareness Day, a group of mothers, their children and a few researchers gathered to plant a new maple tree on the median of Monument Street.
The group was composed of women and children, all of whom were at risk for HIV by virtue of where and how they lived; some came from areas of East Baltimore with HIV rates worse than in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
I stood with them, as well as fellow Johns Hopkins Center for Immunization Research staff and a White House representative, for an official dedication of the little sapling. In all of our hearts was the hope that by the time the little tree and these precious children were grown, we might have a vaccine to prevent HIV infection and AIDS.
Former President Bill Clinton harbored the same hope, when in 1997, in a commencement speech at Morgan State University, he declared that we should have an AIDS vaccine in 10 years’ time.
Clinton’s hopeful statement began the annual recognition of May 18 as World AIDS Vaccine Day, when we mark the progress made in the global search for an AIDS vaccine.
Now, the children and maple tree are grown, and we still don’t have an AIDS vaccine – not yet. But we will. Because along with the tree and children, the other thing that has grown considerably is the body of amazing science that tells us how a vaccine might work.
Many of these potentially pivotal discoveries are, in part, thanks to USAID’s support and the Agency’s belief in the critical importance of an HIV vaccine as potentially the singular most important tool to end AIDS.
We will stay the course — here are just a few of the reasons why:
- We know that an HIV vaccine is possible. Between 1999 and 2009, a trial with Thai volunteers proved that an experimental HIV vaccine was modestly effective. This proof-of-concept trial has encouraged droves of world-class scientists to work together on improving the 31 percent protection rate seen in that historic trial, known as RV 144. Significant improvements to the vaccine regimen have been made, and trials to test these enhancements are now underway in South Africa.
- We’re learning key lessons about how HIV behaves and how it can be stopped. New insights about how the virus invades the body’s infection-fighting T-cells are helping scientists design promising AIDS vaccine candidates that can produce antibodies to block the invasion that leads to chronic HIV infection.
- While these and other remarkable discoveries are happening, USAID stays ever-focused on strengthening clinical trials in developing countries, building on our longstanding partnerships in Africa, actively increasing local scientific leadership, improving the sustainability of advanced research, and helping to expand and prepare the next generation of investigators.
No matter what, we’ll keep at it — and like that 16-year-old maple tree, we’ll keep growing until we have reached an AIDS vaccine that is safe, effective and accessible to those who need it most.