Transmitted by people without symptoms, hitting populations regarded too widely as “disposable,” its spread facilitated by claims the deadly public health threat is a hoax, and presenting lessons in research that include the critical roles of community engagement and of collaborative endeavors reaching across disciplines and national boundaries, HIV offered valuable lessons to scientists and policy makers over the last four decades.
Those lessons inform critical work now to contain, control and end the spread of COVID-19, Dr. Anthony Fauci said in a virtual opening session of the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections today. In turn, he noted, underscoring the lessons of HIV, and highlighting the gaps exposed by that pandemic, COVID-19 has offered a lesson in the urgency of new, strengthened international and interdisciplinary partnerships to recognize public health threats, discover their impacts, speed and support research, and ensure the findings work on the ground.
A year after a biotechnology company’s conference in Boston sparked a COVID-19 outbreak among 100 participants that was eventually credited with causing at least 300,000 infections prompted leaders of CROI 2020 to cancel its own Boston on-site meeting that week in favor of a virtual one, the two pandemics shared equal time at the once again virtual conference organized around HIV science nearly 30 years ago.
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director and White House Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci presented the N’galy-Mann lecture, named for two researchers whose humanitarian perspective opened the scope of global HIV science.
Dr. Fauci described the role that early AIDS activists played in changing research methods and approaches: “We listened to them and we learned from them,” he said.
Some of the lessons were straightforward, even as application remains a work in progress — highlighting that community involvement, equity, evidence, and on-the-ground effectiveness, all overlooked in early HIV responses, are essential to pandemic control. All remain pivotal, he said, as once again a pandemic both highlights and exacerbates the role of health disparities.
Among the hardest hit now, he noted as essential workers. “Essential members of society out there doing service for society.”
Lessons from ongoing efforts to develop a vaccine against HIV laid the groundwork for the effective COVID-19 vaccines on the ground today Dr. Fauci said.
“HIV vaccine development remains a scientific challenge,” he noted, “but helped pave the way for rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines.” Key had been both advances in vaccine design and development process, paving the way for global cooperation and collaboration.
The lessons learned offer structure and direction for “other diseases of global health importance,” Dr. Fauci said. “Hopefully our corporate memory will remain intact.”