By now most of us have heard the news of a Canadian produced preventative HIV vaccine being developed from a genetically modified killed whole virus that’s been approved for clinical trials on human test subjects by Dr. Chil-Yong Kang and his team at Western University.
For those of you that haven’t heard, the announcement was made December 20th, 2011 by researchers from University of Western Ontario that a vaccine (SAV001) produced from the whole HIV virus was approved by the U.S Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to be administered into the first of three human trial phases to determine the safety of the vaccine for public release.
The three phases of human testing begin this month (January 2012) with the first having the vaccine administered into 40 already HIV+ volunteers to determine the bodily responses for safety purposes. If the test results come back as desired the second phase of human administration of the vaccine would involve approximately 600 HIV- volunteers determined to be high risk for HIV contraction to measure immune system responses to the vaccine. The third phase would involve a comparative study by administering the vaccine into approximately half of a group of 6000 HIV- volunteers determined to be at high risk for HIV contraction to test the efficiency of the vaccine.
After doing quite a bit of research on the subject there were a few things that struck me as highly questionable.
First of all – the methods of developing the vaccine, and administering it, are very similar processes to the creation of vaccinations against rabies, polio, and influenza. Correct me if I’m wrong, but getting a vaccination against these diseases doesn’t guarantee you that you won’t contract them, some individuals (while relatively a low in comparison) actually experience the complete opposite and develop symptoms or contract the diseases as a result of vaccination. And like that of polio, rabies, and influenza, HIV is a highly progressive and constantly evolving disease – it would be highly probable that even vaccinations that would target known strains of those diseases or of HIV would not be fully successful in protecting individuals from the newly evolved/mutated strains.
Second, the releases and media outlets communicating the announcements to the public have only provided minimal information towards the human testing phases. Most troubling in the human test phases would be phase three where they are administering the experimental vaccine to 3000 of 6000 HIV- individuals to test it’s efficiency.
How would they test this?
By sending all 6000 HIV- negative people in the study out into the world to have unprotected sex? By injecting the volunteers with undestroyed HIV strains and seeing who became HIV+ and who didn’t?
These volunteers might even intentionally be compromising public safety by engaging in unsafe sexual practices with others who are not aware of their involvement in the study. How would you check the efficiency of the vaccine unless you are putting (or encouraging) the vaccinated group to put themselves in high-risk situations where contraction could be possible? You really can’t measure its effectiveness against contraction of HIV unless the vaccinated individual is exposed to situations where HIV contraction can occur. And if the vaccine isn’t effective and they contract the virus prior to it’s detection within the host and continue within the study – they would be compromising public safety and health.
Third, I saw one article specifically address that the vaccine was created from destroyed HIV-1 virus – there was never mention of if the vaccine would only be effective for the HIV-1 strain or not. Considering that there are multiple strains of the virus and all have different immune responses and effects on the human body (each requiring different medical treatment strategies) would that mean if the vaccine is effective against and only developed for HIV-1 that you’d still be at risk for contraction of the other strains (or again, new strains as they mutate and evolve)?
Fourth, when this information was released into the media and the public started responding via social networks (like facebook and twitter) the comments that I started noticing were kind of scary. Individuals made comments about how the future of unprotected sex was being solidified, how condom companies were going to go out of business, how exciting it would be to finally eradicate the virus, etc.
These responses were mind-boggling as the virus will never really be eradicated – we have vaccines for many diseases that still exist in humanity and spread like wildfire through our populations – the most popular and well known one that still kills people in every city, every year, regardless of a vaccine is influenza - vaccination or not. While yes, I agree that influenza’s ability to survive in environments outside the human body is different than that of HIV’s, the point is that it does survive, and has, and still infects (and kills) vaccinated individuals every year. Even if you vaccinated the entire popular against HIV with a successful vaccine, it would not destroy the virus.
Even looking at the most positive-minded viewpoint of if the vaccine was 100% effective – how would that create a situation of safe unprotected sex? Did the public forgot about other sexually transmitted diseases like herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis, genital/anal warts, etc? Unprotected/unsafe sex will always carry health risks and situations of disease contraction between members of the human population.
While I agree that yes, the announcement in the research, development, and testing advances in HIV medicine, treatments, and prevention (including the vaccine) are very exciting, we still have to look at the bigger picture and remember that safe sex practices are still (and will continue to be) the best methods of protecting ourselves if we’re sexually active – and not just against HIV.