It’s Time to End AIDS: Why EU Should Fund Search for HIV Vaccine

 The HIV pandemic has affected over 2.3 million people in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) European Region, with nearly 300 new diagnoses made daily in 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic and geopolitical turbulences in the region impacted the course of the HIV pandemic and the response, displacing populations, and disrupting access to care and HIV testing.

Today, living with HIV is no longer a reason for despair and the management of HIV is well codified. As there is no cure, people living with HIV undertake life-long treatment that allows them to have healthy and long lives. The effectiveness of treatment is indisputable but the estimated treatment cost per person per year remains high. In Spain, it is estimated to be €11,638, while in Germany it soars to around €32,100. In France, the cost reaches €14,821, and in Italy, it amounts to €6,300.

While the introduction of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) in 2012 was a breakthrough in HIV prevention in Europe and globally, the burden of HIV continues to fall disproportionately in certain regions, like eastern Europe, as well as on vulnerable populations that include migrants, sex workers, people who use drugs and men who have sex with men. These disparities are felt in various aspects of HIV prevention and treatment, including limited access to testing and inadequate availability and affordability of prevention tools like PrEP.

Significant economic and human rights impact

WHO Europe: HIV in Europe 2021

Although the incidence of HIV in the region may not be as alarming as in other parts of the world, its impact is significant, not only on European economies but also on the human rights of its marginalised populations.

Within this context, immunisation is a crucial means of safeguarding public health, reducing morbidity and mortality. Additionally, it delivers advantages for the social and economic fabric of nations and helps alleviate the burden on healthcare systems.

Despite the disruption caused by COVID-19 in recent years, European scientists have rallied together in the pursuit of an effective HIV vaccine, conducting several early-phase trials with the backing of funding from Horizon 2020. These trials use original technologies often not developed elsewhere. However, plans and funds to ensure their continuity are urgently required, especially given the need for larger trials to achieve conclusive results.

So, why should Europe invest in the search for an HIV vaccine? First, an HIV vaccine would naturally help control the pandemic on the continent, not only from a prevention point of view but also because HIV vaccines are key to cure and remission of the virus.

Simultaneously, the vaccine would have a tremendous impact on improving public health, not only on HIV-related issues but also on other infectious diseases. For example, the long-term research conducted for an HIV vaccine played a crucial role towards the rapid development of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Moreover, it has proven to be critical in paving the way for the development of vaccines for other diseases not only strengthening the networks of European research institutions but improving the necessary infrastructure. Thus, investing in an HIV vaccine undoubtedly means investing in pandemic preparedness, and in global health security.

Lastly, the development and distribution of an effective HIV vaccine have the potential to improve global health equity. It would ensure that everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status or geographic location, has access to life-saving technologies, leaving no one behind. Additionally, an HIV vaccine would further protect vulnerable populations and reduce health disparities, contributing to the fight against HIV-related stigma and discrimination. By improving prevention and providing opportunities for greater control of HIV, an HIV vaccine would have a worldwide impact beyond Europe.

Vulnerable populations

Through its Global Health Strategy, the European Union is committed to deepening its leadership in global health matters, assuring that everyone everywhere has access to the highest attainable standards of health, based on solidarity and human rights. This will be achieved by, amongst other priorities, tackling the root causes of ill health, focusing on vulnerable populations, and working towards a mechanism that fosters the development of, and equitable access to, vaccines.

As the COVID-19 pandemic made clear, the EU has an unprecedented opportunity to become a global health leader. Investing in the development of an HIV vaccine that can save the lives of people all over the world must be a fundamental part of this strategy, with positive benefits for individual health and human rights, as well as for economies and health security.

It is time to invest in R&D for an HIV vaccine. It is time to ensure that the HIV pandemic no longer poses a threat to public health and individual well-being, and by doing so, protect human rights and advance equity. It is time to end AIDS.

Frances Fitzgerald is a Member of the European Parliament, Ireland

Sirpa Pietikäinen is a Member of the European Parliament, Finland

Sara Cerdas is a Member of the European Parliament, Portugal

Cyrus Engerer is a Member of the European Parliament, Malta

Antoni Comín i Oliveres is a Member of the European Parliament, Spain

Catharina Rinzema is a Member of the European Parliament, The Netherlands

Marc Angel is a member of the European Parliament, Luxembourg

Image Credits: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona/ Unsplash.

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