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How did we get a COVID vaccine if there’s not one for HIV?

Health care workers answer questions about the COVID-19 vaccines.


David Malebranche, MD, MPH explains how COVID and HIV are different viruses, and why we were able to develop the COVID vaccines first.


I think when people ask that question and I’ll hear some of the times, “Well, how do we come up with a COVID-19 vaccine so quickly? And we’ve been dealing with HIV for 40 years and we ain’t got nothing for that yet.” It’s true, and so, I want people to understand that that’s a logical question. That’s not a conspiracy theory, that’s a normal response. Like if you’ve known about this virus, you’ve been studying it, we have all these medications that can treat it. Why don’t we have a curative vaccine yet?

The response I would tell people who have those concerns are one, HIV is a retrovirus. It works in an entirely different way in replicating and using the body to produce more copies of itself than the SARS-CoV-2 virus does. So that’s the first thing.

Second of all, what happened with COVID-19 is that things got so hectic so quickly. So many people getting exposed. So many people getting hospitalized. So many people dying that the research and scientific community had to move things and mobilize resources from the studies that were focused on HIV and other viruses into the COVID-19 pandemic, just because it was happening so quick at the time, it was more urgent at that time. And so, I think, on the outside, looking in, you can look at it and say, “Well God that came up quickly. Why aren’t we focusing on these other things?” So, I would say one, the virus is different too. We actually have been working on vaccines for HIV and making a lot of progress with vaccines, better medications, injectable treatments for HIV that only require someone living with HIV getting a shot once a month.

All those things are happening. So I’m confident that at some point we will. But I think what we’ve learned from this pandemic is that one, we have been able to mobilize the resources to—we’ve been able to actually combine public health, federal infrastructure with private donations, with private resources, with private funding. And then what happens is you can move things quickly.

This information is shared for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for professional medical advice. The views expressed are those of the featured medical professional and reflect information available to that professional at time of filming. Always consult a health care provider for any personal health decisions. Click here for vaccine FAQs from the CDC.

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