Dispatch February 2009

An Early End to the HIV/AIDS Pandemic?

A pioneering AIDS researcher contends that the tools to end the epidemic may already be at hand

Preliminary reports on Obama’s first budget, to be unveiled tomorrow, suggest that  funding for international AIDS programs will be held flat, despite campaign-trail promises to ramp up U.S. commitment. Yet now more than ever, investment in the cause can make a difference.

Earlier this week, I met with three colleagues — Robert Gallo, Max Essex, and Robert Redfield—who have been at the forefront of AIDS research for the last 25 years. It was the four of us who in the early ’80s helped define the viral nature of the disease, developed the basis for the first diagnostic test, and established a fundamental understanding of the virus, which led directly to the development of effective treatments. We hadn’t been together in one place in about a decade, and as we got to talking at Bob Gallo’s Institute of Human Virology in Baltimore, we realized we shared a surprising conclusion: The tools to end the AIDS epidemic may well be at hand.

Paradoxically, this realization emerges at a low point in our hopes for an HIV/AIDS vaccine. The dramatic failure of the most-promising-seeming vaccine last year dashed such prospects, and sent the community of researchers back to the laboratory. Nevertheless, the epidemic could still be arrested or substantially slowed using diagnostic tests and anti-viral drugs already in existence—saving tens of millions of lives worldwide. 

Epidemic control begins with knowing who is infected, so the first step is to detect all those who carry the virus. The means to monitor the progress of the disease are widely available. Reliable, inexpensive diagnostic tests exist and are being used in rich and poor countries alike. And thanks to anti-discrimination policies and the availability of effective, affordable treatments, barriers to testing are falling. In some regions, such as southern Africa, where infection rates exceed 25 percent of the adult population, testing of everyone between the ages of fifteen and fifty might be recommended. Elsewhere, as in the United States and Western Europe, testing could be more focused.

The second step is to treat all those infected with combinations of anti-HIV drugs. Advances in this area have been nothing short of spectacular. More than twenty-five new drugs are currently available, and still more are in the pipeline. When I began my work, HIV infections were almost always fatal. Today, most of those infected with HIV, if carefully treated, can expect to live many decades in relatively good health. Although it is too early to know for sure, it seems likely that the majority of those carrying the virus can expect a normal lifespan.

The effectiveness of the first therapies was limited by the rapid emergence of viruses within each patient that were resistant to a single drug. The solution was to develop sets of drugs, each acting on a different part of the virus. At present, drugs that inhibit six different steps required for virus growth are available. Using combinations of these drugs greatly slows the development of drug resistance. And when resistant viruses do emerge, different combinations of these drugs are often effective. Such progress is a triumph of modern medical science.

Initially, effective HIV/AIDS treatments were available only to those living in wealthy countries. The cost of drug therapy ranged from $10,000 to $15,000 dollars a year in rich and poor countries alike. Today, combination therapy is available in some countries for as little as $75 a year. And agencies such as the Global Fund and the U.S.-sponsored PEPFAR program provide drug treatment free of charge to many less developed countries. Thanks to this dramatic reduction in cost, more than 3 million people in poorer countries are currently receiving treatment through these and other programs. With continued support, that number will grow.

Despite such progress, however, the epidemic is outrunning treatment. The World Health Organization estimates that there are now about 35 million people infected with HIV, the great majority of them living in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. It is also estimated that 2 to 3 million new people are infected with HIV each year. Thus, an effective method for preventing new infections is badly needed, which is why the failure of the HIV/AIDS vaccine trials was so tragic.

Presented by

William Haseltine is a former professor at Harvard Medical School, where he researched cancer and HIV/AIDS. He is the founder of Human Genome Sciences, where he served as chairman and CEO, and the president of the William A Haseltine Foundation for Medical Sciences and the Arts. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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