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Moderna, the Biotech company, is creating a new herpes vaccine. If it works as planned, it will be the first vaccine to protect you from the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI).
The Herpes Infection
Researchers have now found over 100 herpes viruses, and several of them can infect humans, like HSV-1 (the virus that can cause cold sores) and HSV-2 (the virus that can cause genital sores).
HSV-2 is caused by sexual contact, and when an individual gets infected, the virus is with them forever. Therefore, with the sporadic occurrences of painful sores, herpes carriers will have to put up with the stigma surrounding being infected with a skin rash.
Nearly 500 million people have HSV-2, making it the most common STI. In addition, those with HSV-2 are three times more likely to contract HIV if they are exposed to herpes.
This means a herpes vaccine may not only prevent about 350,000 new HSV-2 infections each year in the United States alone but could also aid in the battle against HIV.
The reason for there not being a herpes vaccine yet is because years of previous research have failed during human trials.
The Issues with the Vaccine
The vaccine’s primary goal is to activate the immune response without infecting the individual. The body will be trained to recognize and attack the virus if it shows up in the body.
However, the HSV-2 virus can infect a human and then avoid the immune system for several years in ways that are not understood. Therefore, it makes it challenging to identify the part of the virus that can train our immune system.
Otherwise, scientists can use a debilitated or “attenuated” variety of the virus as the vaccine. It would increase the chance of activating the immune response, and it is how researchers have invented vaccines in the past.
Sadly, as the herpes virus can hide inside a people’s nerve cells for a lifetime, using a weakened live virus can be very dangerous.
Whether scientists use the whole herpes virus or part of it will take longer to grow enough to produce a vaccine. Also, with a vaccine trial, scientists must find enough people in the placebo and vaccine groups to contract the virus to figure out the vaccine’s efficacy.
A tiny number of infections would mean it takes longer to get an actual result.
Herpes vaccine manufacturers cannot wait for symptoms to show up in people as herpes may remain dormant for several years. Therefore, they must test volunteers, which seriously drives up the cost of the study.
The mRNA vaccine does not use the virus at all — in its place, and it uses genetic instructions to the body to teach it how to create a part of the virus. It will then activate the immune system, getting it ready to attack if an actual virus is ever found.
It is much easier and faster to scale than grow a virus. An mRNA vaccine can distribute instructions to make multiple virus parts. For example, the herpes vaccine currently being developed uses three different proteins of HSV-2.
No researcher has yet to test an mRNA herpes vaccine in people.
Although applicants who have made it to animal trials have been amazingly effective, one vaccine successfully protected 100% of mice from the infection, while another protected 98% of mice.
What’s Next for the Herpes Vaccine?
Moderna is the biggest name in mRNA vaccines. It will now add an HSV-2 vaccine to their inventions and a vaccine to protect against varicella-zoster virus (it causes shingles and chickenpox) as a cancer vaccine.
Moderna expects the herpes vaccine to protect against HSV-2 infections and provide some aid against HSV-1.
Although right now, it is still too soon to know if Moderna’s vaccine will be the first successful herpes vaccine to make it through human trials.