Moderna, the company that has provided the technological foundation for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, has revealed its plans to expand the use of mRNA-based vaccines to including two which specifically target HIV. The planned HIV vaccines are expected to enter Phase I trials in 2021.

Vaccines built on the mRNA protocol work by providing the genetic code for cells to produce viral proteins. Once the proteins, which don’t cause disease, are produced, the body is said to launch an immune response against viruses thus enabling the person to develop immunity.

“Even as we have shown that our mRNA-based vaccine can prevent COVID-19, this has encouraged us to pursue more-ambitious development programs within our prophylactic vaccines modality,” Stéphane Bancel, Moderna CEO said in a statement.

The company went on to say they were working on a total of 24 separate vaccines across a variety of therapeutic areas, with 13 of these currently under clinical development. Research into a successful HIV vaccine has been continuing since 1978, yet so far none have been successful in developing a vaccine to eradicate the disease, which is said to kill close to 700,000 people worldwide per year.

To be developed in collaboration with the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, mRNA-1644 as it will be called, will aim to use a “novel approach” to elicit HIV neutralising antibodies, the company has said.

 mRNA-1574, the second vaccine developed in collaboration with the NIH, will trial a similar approach with multiple native-like trimeric antigens.

And though Moderna has had great success in working to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 in record time, due to the far more complex nature of HIV, it will be many years before either of these two potential vaccines could be ready for widespread use.

However, the announcement made by Moderna is important for other reasons, as it clearly shows that there is now interest from big biotechnology companies in the field of HIV research and prevention. An area which for a long time has been less attractive than others, due to its long timelines and low revenue prospects, unlike the flu vaccine, which is estimated to have a market value of around $4 billion per year.

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