The good news is, an infant seems to have been cured of an HIV infection.
The bad news is, the healthcare providers administering the successful treatment aren’t quite sure how they did it, or why it worked. Ergo, this isn’t exactly game-changing news for investors.
It’s also not news that the current dominant players in the HIV treatment market — like Merck (NYSE:MRK), Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE:BMY), Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ:GILD) and GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) — will be worrying too much about, either as a threat, or as an opportunity.
Don’t Jump to Conclusions
The headlines “First Child Cured of HIV” and “HIV-Infected Infant Cured With Early Use of AIDS Drugs” were plenty misleading.
The more detailed explanation: A two-and-a-half-year-old child who began receiving retroviral drugs just 30 hours after being born was recently tested for evidence that the virus was still living in the child’s body.
That evidence is measured by what’s called a “viral load” test, which can not only confirm or rule out the existence of HIV in a patient, but also determine the severity of the infection. The child in question showed high viral loads when first born, but within the first month — once a combination of HIV-fighting drugs AZT, 3TC and nevirapine were given to the newborn — the viral load began to fall, as expected.
The most recent round of viral load testing surprised caregivers, though. There has been no evidence of HIV for the past 10 months, despite a lapse in treatments for a few months about a year ago.
To be fair, though many are excited about the retroviral drugs’ apparent eradication of an HIV infection, healthcare providers as well as researchers are still skeptical. This might be an isolated stroke of luck. Or it might be the case that the child was never actually infected at all, but tested HIV-positive at birth simply because the newborn had developed in womb of a mother who would inherently show a high viral load.
If things are as they superficially seem to be, however, experts believe the trio of HIV retroviral drugs was effective at killing the virus primarily because they started to fight the infection before it had a chance to root itself deep into the infant’s cells and immune system. As such, the response driven by these drugs suggests that the speed of treatment after exposure is at least one way to improve the odds of staving off an infection.
All that said, one thing needs to be made clear: Just because the recent viral load test for the child implies the infection is completely gone doesn’t inherently mean it can’t or won’t come back later.
Though one child’s seemingly successful eradication of an HIV infection offers hope, it’s far too soon to say this is game-changing. Nevertheless, if things are as they seem, at least some credit is due GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer and Abbott Laboratories (NYSE:ABT). Glaxo and Pfizer have entered into a joint venture to sell lamivudine (3TC) and zidovudine (AZT), while Abbott manufactures and markets nevirapine.
It’s not entirely clear which of these three treatments did the lion’s share of the healing work; perhaps they all contributed equally. It looks like the combination was effective as a true “cure,” though, for the first time ever.
In the meantime, however, don’t look for any of the major names in the HIV treatment race to drop everything and concentrate all their R&D efforts on recreating this infant’s anti-HIV response. While early treatment might have been the key here, most HIV patients don’t know they’ve been infected for months — if not years — and therefore wouldn’t seek out a retroviral treatment.
Translation: The search for an assured HIV “cure” is still under way, with Merck, Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) and Gilead Sciences all still working on drugs that would do just that. At stake is a market approaching $12 billion.
This is wonderful news for the child, and certainly relieving for the mother. But there’s nothing in this good news that drug companies can take away and use as a guidebook for their research and development efforts. Biotech developers will continue to crank out treatment, while a handful of drug companies continue to work an on outright cure.
That’s the way it’s been for a while, though.
As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.