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The Vaccine Hunter: Nelson Michael Is Working to End Humanity’s Worst Diseases

From Ebola, to Zika, to HIV, Dr. Nelson Michael isn’t afraid of a challenge.

Humans of the Year

When the Zika virus surged onto the public health scene in late 2015, many people were unprepared for how to deal with the outbreak. The Zika virus had been around for decades, but it wasn't until an outbreak occurred in Brazil that doctors realized it can cause microcephaly: a condition where a baby is born with a smaller-than-normal head, and often has an underdeveloped brain. This link made the virus suddenly very threatening as it quickly spread throughout Latin America.

But Col. Nelson Michael, a medical doctor at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, knew exactly what to do. Within weeks of learning about the outbreak, he and dozens of other researchers around the world leapt into the work of developing a vaccine.

"I've been sleeping under my desk," he told me when I interviewed him at the height of this work.

Michael's vaccine, developed with a team of other experts, went from theory to human trials in less than a year. Not long before Zika was making headlines, Michael had helped develop an Ebola vaccine in response to the 2014 West Africa outbreak. But to Michael, conjuring up a vaccine for these diseases in the midst of global health crisis was practically a cinch. That's because he has spent most of his career searching for a vaccine for one of humanity's most devastating, and complicated diseases: HIV.

Col. Michael speaks to foreign dignitaries during a recent visit at WRAIR. Image: WRAIR

"It's been extremely helpful to me to work on Ebola and Zika because these are, frankly, easier nuts to crack," Michael said. "I don't want to say it's easy but the honest truth is, in the history of making vaccines, the Superbowl is a vaccine for HIV."

Raised outside Washington, DC until the age of 13, Michael and his family moved to Hawaii when his father joined the University of Hawaii School of Public Health. He finished high school there (the same school as Barack Obama, though they were four years apart), and always had an interest in science and medicine. After earning his MD and PhD, Michael then joined the military, inspired by his father, a WWI veteran, though he didn't realize he'd spend the next 20 years of his career in the service.

Read more: How to Make a Zika Vaccine in the Middle of an Epidemic

"If you're going to work on infectious diseases in the military from a scientific standpoint, you're going to end up working on counter-measures, like vaccines," Michael told me. "I was only bound to the army for three years, but I became so enthusiastic about working on vaccines and understanding how HIV works, I decided to stay."

Since then, Michael has become an expert in HIV and the possibilities of a vaccine. For decades, any vaccine candidates failed to be even modestly effective—and some were downright harmful—leaving Michael a bit discouraged. But in 2009, a breakthrough: latest vaccine, developed by Michael and his many colleagues, was shown to be effective. A trial of more than 16,000 individuals showed those vaccinated had an HIV infection rate that was a third lower than unvaccinated individuals. It wasn't a slam dunk, but it showed that there's hope yet for an HIV vaccine, something many people at that point believed simply wasn't possible.

These days, while juggling vaccine work for emerging outbreaks like Zika, Michael is still dedicated to HIV vaccine research. He told me they're currently working on vaccines not only for HIV prevention, but also as a possible therapy for people who already have HIV. Though it's not going to be on the market next week, Michael said he does think there's a light at the end of the tunnel now. He only wished more people prioritized this kind of research.

"People have a short attention span," Michael said. "As bad as Ebola was, killing about 11,500 human beings, that death toll occurs every three days in HIV and it doesn't go away. I think it's important to stay focused on the diseases that are huge killers."