Antibodies that bind well to the envelope spikes of immunodeficiency viruses such as HIV type 1 (HIV-1) and simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) can offer protection or benefit if present at appropriate concentrations before viral exposure. The challenge in antibody-based HIV-1 vaccine design is to elicit such antibodies to the viruses involved in transmission in humans (primary viruses). At least two major obstacles exist. The first is that very little of the envelope spike surface of primary viruses appears accessible for antibody binding (low antigenicity), probably because of oligomerization of the constituent proteins and a high degree of glycosylation of one of the proteins. The second is that the mature oligomer constituting the spikes appears to stimulate only weak antibody responses (low immunogenicity). Viral variation is another possible obstacle that appears to present fewer problems than anticipated. Vaccine design should focus on presentation of an intact mature oligomer, increasing the immunogenicity of the oligomer and learning from the antibodies available that potently neutralize primary viruses.