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After the COVID-19 Vaccines Sprint, researchers return to the HIV marathon with renewed determination and knowledge, launching a clinical research registry and publicity campaign

The Help End HIV campaign aims to raise awareness, particularly among younger people, that HIV remains a major public health problem around the world and in the United States. Recent audience research conducted by HVTN found that many Americans are unaware that HIV is still a public health concern in the US, are unsure if they are susceptible to exposure, and don’t know if there is a cure.

The awareness campaign coincides with the launch of the Red Ribbon Registry, a unique, consumer-friendly volunteer database designed to bring together people interested in supporting HIV vaccine research with HIV clinical trials in their communities.

The new Red Ribbon Registry builds on the successful collaborative work from the COVID-19 vaccine trials conducted by the COVID-19 Prevention Network. CoVPN is a clinical trials network enabled for the COVID-19 pandemic, built on the infrastructure of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases-funded HVTN. Community advocates, physicians, scientists, epidemiologists and others are taking the lessons from COVID-19 vaccine research and employing successful strategies and tactics to revitalize HIV vaccine research.

“HIV vaccine research has now closed,” said Dr. Larry Corey, who runs both HVTN and CoVPN and is a virologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where both networks are headquartered. “The registry grew out of what we learned during the COVID-19 vaccine trials, which were themselves based on evidence from previous HIV vaccine clinical trials.”

Both HVTN and CoVPN are funded by NIAID, part of the National Institutes of Health.

The overall goal of the campaign and registry is to raise awareness of the urgent need for HIV clinical trial volunteers and to encourage more people – especially young people – to participate. Because COVID-19 was so widespread and so devastating, clinical trials testing experimental COVID-19 vaccines and treatments attracted an unprecedented number of volunteers in a very short period of time. In contrast, the uptake of volunteers in the early stages of clinical trials for HIV and other diseases has typically lagged. The Help End HIV campaign and the Red Ribbon Registry want to change that.

“HIV is quietly spreading throughout both the United States and the world, and the need for an effective vaccine continues,” said Corey, who has been a principal investigator at the HVTN since its inception. “Our goal is to connect with a younger generation who are largely unaware of HIV as a global public health crisis and the urgent need for effective vaccines.”

As the world’s largest publicly funded network for preventive HIV vaccine trials, HVTN is uniquely positioned to address this issue. Since HVTN initiated its first study in 2000, the network has conducted over 85 clinical studies, approximately 80% of which were phase I studies. Thirteen of these studies are still active, six are currently enrolling participants and over 15 studies are in preparation for the next year.

“HIV and SARS-CoV-2 are very different viruses, with HIV evolving an enormous number of variants, making it a constantly moving target. One thing we’ve learned from the COVID-19 trials is that investing in rapid iteration of trials yields early benefits — and this is all the more important as we turn the attention back to an HIV vaccine,” said Dr . Stephaun Wallace, Director of External Relations, CoVPN /HVTN at Fred Hutch. “In order to quickly determine which study products to pursue, we must design and implement studies quickly, and that includes recruiting and enrolling participants more efficiently. We see the Red Ribbon Registry campaign playing a critical role in this approach.”

Outreach efforts for the campaign and registry are targeting geographic areas with a large pool of potential volunteers where HIV vaccine trials are taking place. Approximately 41 sites across the US are currently conducting clinical trials in HIV treatment and prevention and are actively recruiting volunteers. Volunteers register through the registry so that they can be matched to an appropriate study. Potential study participants are typically healthy people, ages 18 to 55, who are HIV negative and want to help find a safe and effective vaccine to end the HIV pandemic.

Similar to the COVID-19 vaccine trials, which relied heavily on community engagement to encourage participation, HVTN plans to enlist the support of religious and other community leaders to acknowledge the urgent need for volunteer trials – particularly in communities where distrust exists due to historical abuses in biomedical research and current racial disparities in healthcare.

“We have seen from the COVID-19 vaccine trials that religious leaders, advocates and health professionals can play a critical role in overcoming mistrust, particularly in communities of color,” Wallace said. “Efficient community engagement and diversity in participation in trials are critical to ensuring that a vaccine shown to be effective in one trial is actually effective in a diverse, real-world population, as well as eventual vaccine or therapeutic acceptance after their approval. We must once again work with community leaders and advocates to ensure greater diversity in HIV clinical trials, particularly among key communities that are typically underrepresented, including women, transgender people, and Black, Indigenous and Colored people.”

In conjunction with the awareness campaign, HVTN has developed a redesigned and comprehensive website that interested individuals can visit to learn more about HIV and access the Red Ribbon Register through the website.

Visit HelpEndHIV.org for more information.

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