World AIDS Day 2021: Let's give the gifts of hope and focus to HIV research

HIV scientific infrastructure paved the way for the world’s COVID-19 response. Now, it’s time to return the favor.
Dr. Larry Corey
Dr. Larry Corey, past president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, is co-founder and principal investigator for the Hutch-based HIV Vaccine Trials Network. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

In the decades that we have worked to find treatments and vaccines for HIV/AIDS, cancer, herpes viruses and now, COVID-19, I have learned that we can move mountains when we combine fearless science, a true desire to work together and a relentless focus on saving lives.

As winter approaches, we face another holiday season of navigating COVID-19 uncertainties, including figuring out how to celebrate with our loved ones and understanding yet another SARS-CoV-2 variant. Fortunately, we now have the tools to protect ourselves, which provides optimism about the future. Children are back in school, vaccines are plentiful in this country, albeit not globally, and we have effective monoclonal antibodies and new antiviral oral medications to protect the most vulnerable adults from severe disease.

Most of these tools are a gift of a long-established HIV research infrastructure, which made possible, in record time, the development of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, COVID-19 monoclonal antibodies and, soon, antiviral treatments. In fact, one of the COVID-19 antivirals uses the anti-HIV drug ritonavir as a part of its regimen. HIV medicine and clinical investigation played a critical role in our COVID-19 response, and this gift that 40 years of HIV research has brought in our global struggle to end the COVID-19 pandemic should be acknowledged.

On this World AIDS Day, my aspiration is that the world community takes this opportunity to return the favor by renewing and expanding our commitment to end HIV/AIDS, the pandemic which is still very much with us and has silently continued unabated since COVID-19 was discovered.

It’s clear that COVID-19 has brought new technologies, and perhaps even more importantly, new ways of working together to achieve pandemic solutions. We need to tap these new tools, sense of urgency, scientific and manufacturing processes and political commitment that permeate the COVID-19 crisis and pass that gift to communities throughout the world still dealing with the ongoing challenge of HIV/AIDS.

The solidarity and commitment of academia, government, industry and citizenry were the glue that allowed the rapid development and testing of COVID-19 vaccines and therapies. This uniformity and commitment led to an unprecedented unpacking of administrative bureaucracies in clinical and medical research. Timelines have been compressed without altering scientific standards. We established a new cadence of research and have defined a new road map for success. This road map needs to be duplicated and followed in the HIV/AIDS space.

Since its founding more than 20 years ago, the HIV Vaccine Trials Network has learned that with cooperation across sectors — academia, government, nonprofits and industry — we can work on the scale that is needed to address grand challenges. We’ve learned the paramount importance of engaging diverse communities in meaningful ways throughout the scientific process.

We’ve shown through years of HIV research that a harmonized, coordinated design for clinical studies can support multiple, large-scale vaccine trials across hundreds of sites in countries around the world, simultaneously.

We established that statistical analysis must be best in class to pinpoint correlates of protection such as antibody levels and to account for complexities like the rapid evolution of virus variants.

It is clear to the scientific community that hard-won expertise in developing antiviral drugs and monoclonal antibodies to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS helped propel today’s COVID-19 drugs to clinical trials and then to patients.

It is time to double down in our efforts to stop HIV/AIDS. We must harness the lessons learned during COVID-19, as well as that same, unified sense of purpose, and apply them to our ongoing efforts to develop the next generation of HIV/AIDS vaccines and preventions. We should expand our commitment to find a cure.

This World AIDS Day, I’ll be remembering the brave advocates, the hundreds of thousands of people who have participated in clinical trials, and my brilliant scientific colleagues who’ve supported and guided HIV/AIDS research all these years. Thanks to their passion and unselfish sacrifice of time and energy, we have confronted and made spectacular progress against a different pandemic.

We need a broad variety of tools that can work together to prevent virus acquisition, limit transmission and care for people who become infected. COVID-19 shows us how important that was and warns us not to forget that lesson.

So, let’s imagine this: If we can keep this scientific momentum going, and use it to attain an effective vaccine against HIV — this most vexing of viral pathogens — we could use the technology and expertise from such an endeavor to spur development of vaccines and new treatments against other viruses, other infectious diseases, immune-related disorders and even cancer.

Aspirational? Yes. Possible? Yes.

Dr. Larry Corey is a professor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who is an internationally renowned expert in virology, immunology and vaccine development. His research focuses on herpes viruses, HIV, COVID-19 and other viral infections. He is principal investigator of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network, which conducts studies of HIV vaccines at over 80 clinical trial sites in 16 countries on five continents. He is also principal investigator of the operations center of the COVID-19 Prevention Network and co-leads the network’s vaccine testing pipeline.

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