CROI: Science progress outpaces politics, policy

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Science Speaks is in Atlanta, Georgia this week and will be live-blogging from the 20th CROI — Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections from Sunday to Wednesday, covering breaking developments from investigators on cure research, new antiretroviral agents, hepatitis, tuberculosis and treatment as prevention.

Kevin DeCockATLANTA, GA — Here is one of the first signs of what science has done in the 20 years since the first Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infection convened. If you’re going to call the conference anything for short, call it the “retrovirus conference,” conference scientific program committee chair Kevin De Cock of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told the press shortly before the opening talks.

That is because, although this year’s conference sees an unprecedented emphasis on tuberculosis, the opportunistic infections that were the focus of the conference when it began two decades ago have receded as a concern in the face of progress in controlling the retrovirus itself, with medicines that continue to advance, and with hopes for finding a cure.

The conference that is for scientific investigators, by scientific investigators and about little else but scientific investigation will fill the next three days with material from 1,000 abstracts, selected from 1,800, 108 of which will be the subjects of oral presentations. The rest will be poster presentations. They will cover efforts to find and eradicate reservoirs of the virus in the body, what’s new in treatment, treatment as prevention, as well as heightened focus on tuberculosis and hepatitis.

More than 4,000 people are here to take it all in, nearly half of them from outside the United States.

Which is a good thing.

CROI OPENINGThat is because some of the U.S. researchers who planned to come won’t be here. The scientific conference that was prompted, at least in part, by reluctance on the part of U.S. policy makers at the time to pay for American scientists to attend an International AIDS Society Conference in Florence, Italy — because it wasn’t seen as a worthwhile use of funds — has, in spite of the numbers who are here, an attendance problem, thanks to “Sequestration,” the automatic, across the board budget cuts that forced U.S. government agencies to reassess their priorities two days ago. We are waiting to tally a total of how many attendees were sidelined by sequestration.

Lynne Mofenson, of the NIH Institute of Child Health and Human Development, who presented the opening talk on prevention of mother to child HIV transmission “From Epidemic to Elimination” said that three from her branch are here, three were forced to cancel.

A complete tally, De Cock said, would come from the government agencies.

“The conference doesn’t have an official position on this,” he said, adding “It’s unfortunate.”

Then he summed up the irony, noting how, and why the conference began, at a time when AIDS research did not seem a worthy investment.

“It is slightly unexpected,” he said, “that 20 years later, we have to face cancellations because of other concerns.”




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