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AIDS and HIV

AIDSLifeCycle Diary wraps up a 545 mile journey

Route to new finish line in DTLA causes safety concern for many riders

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Kit Winter made the 545 mile journey. (Photo courtesy AIDSLifeCycle)

DAY 6, Lompoc to Ventura, 88.3 Miles | On Day 6, my power ran out. Not my leg power, thankfully – just my iPhone power. Phone charging is a constant challenge on the Ride, as there are never enough outlets and power strips available in the Charging Tent to accomodate the ~3000 people needing to charge their phones in the few hours they have in camp. I brought two external battery packs, but lost my dual USB charger somewhere around Day 3 and never managed to get them charged after that. With my charge rapidly declining, I powered off my phone to make sure I would be able to coordinate with my husband for pickup after the finish line.

Unlike my previous posts, which were written on my phone while laying on an air mattress in a tent, I write this on an actual computer. Spoiler Alert: I am home. I made it. I rode about 530 miles altogether, not the full 552.3, thanks to getting swept to Rest Stop 4 on Day 3. I’ve had a full night’s sleep in my own bed, and I feel great.

Day 6 was the day before yesterday.

Now that I’m home, the entire Ride is suddenly planted firmly in the past, and seems almost completely disconnected from the present. It might as well have been a month ago, or two. The individual days are already losing their differentiation and blending into a single amorphous whole; only the most memorable moments can be reliably placed on a timeline.

Fortuitously for this post, there were some memorable moments on Day 6. We started the day with a long climb up to the Gaviota Pass, the gap in the Santa Ynez mountain range through which the 101 South passes as it makes its way back to the sea after meandering inland from Pismo Beach.

At dinner the night before and again at the first rest stop, we are warned: Single file. Go slow. Stay on the shoulder, don’t cross the white line. Danger. I obey, grudgingly – my preference would be do dive-bomb down at breakneck speeds. I fall in behind a woman named Lee (according to her license plate), who strikes a perfect balance of moderating her speed and passing slower riders. Having her clear the path for me eases my frustration at having to ride my brakes all the way down.

As we hit the coast, the heat of the morning climb gives way to a cool ocean breeze, and we roll along the coast to Santa Barbara. At about mile 60 we reach Paradise Pit, a non-ALC, pop-up pit stop put on annually by Santa Barbara residents to thank the cyclists and raise HIV/AIDS awareness. Paradise Pit lives up to its name with free ice cream and toppings, fresh fruit and fresh-baked cookies, and actual water at the hand-washing stations (as opposed to the ALC standard-issue wet wipes and hand sanitizer).

After selfies with a few buff supporters wearing underwear and angel wings – this is paradise, after all – we head down to the highlight of the day, and perhaps of the whole Ride – the legendary seaside dance party at Rest Stop 4. ALC takes over 15 long RV parking spaces along PCH, puts out a few go-go boxes, and cranks up the volume. It’s an unbelievably ecstatic moment, dancing in the sunshine to “We Are Family” on the side of the highway. 465 miles down.

With almost 90 miles on the route today, though, we have to keep moving, and after just a few songs we tackle the remaining 8.1 miles to camp in Ventura.

It’s beyond comprehension that we are almost home, that this is our last dinner, our last night in a tent. It feels like we just started, and here we are at the end already.

At 8:30 or so, the candlelight memorial for those lost to AIDS begins on the beach. I stay in my tent. I have been at this event many times before, but this year I just can’t. In the hours and hours on the road over the past six days, I have had moments of unbearable grief, missing my friends so much. On Day 4 in particular, something about seeing groups of gay men in their twenties, laughing with their friends, hits me like a gut punch.

When I was that age, half or more of the men in such groups died, leaving us survivors reeling with trauma and grief. How to describe this to those who weren’t there? Contemplating the scale of our AIDS armageddon by mapping my friends onto the beautiful riders around me reminds me that what I lived through is unimaginable, unspeakable, grotesque.

The thought of half of the members of one of these happy teams dying over the course of a few years – then half of the members of *all* of these happy teams, dying – how could the rest of us go on? Yet that is exactly what happened, and here we are, going on. I don’t need to light a candle this year, this year I am the goddamn candle. Eric, Phil, Bill, Anthony, Frank, Mark – I love you and I miss you.

DAY 7, Ventura to Los Angeles: 76.6 Miles | Mentally, Day 7 is completely different for me than every other day on the Ride. Days 1-6, the destination is just a camp somewhere. I keep riding to get to camp.

Day 7, the destination is HOME. I desperately want to be home. I want to see my husband, our dogs and our cats. I want to wear normal cotton garments that do not have padding in the ass or pockets in strange places.

Although the ride through Ventura and Malibu along PCH is famously scenic, the multitudes (multi-dudes?) of surfers and beachgoers opening car doors into the bike path requires laser focus and the view takes a back seat.

I’m riding strong and feeling good, but I still keep thinking about getting on the bus, or at this point, just getting an Uber. I just want to be home. As I ride past the V.A. Center in Westwood – formerly known as the ALC finish line – I curse the additional 15 miles added to the route to the new finish line in DTLA.

Through Beverly Hills and Century City, then into Westlake and Koreatown – the mood shifts notably, and the well-wishers cheering us on in Santa Monica give way to street preachers with megaphones. Someone says “maricon.”

I wonder briefly if I’m about to get fag-bashed.

The roads are terrible, my brain is mush. Eventually we arrive downtown.

The streets are crowded but no one seems to know who we are, or that there’s an event going on, or that the event is AIDS/LifeCycle. We’re just a few thousand people riding through downtown, minding our business. As Broadway passes First St., the road is blocked off and finally there are people who know what’s going on, and they’re cheering.

A quick turn around the block past the finish line and, just like that, it’s over. We skip the finish-line festival – honestly, we couldn’t even tell where it was, or how to get there from where we were – and head home.

There is a lot of discussion online about the decision to move the finish line to DTLA, and my impression is that the response is universally negative. I certainly preferred the Westwood ride-in. But, in the spirit of the event, I will not join the pile-on here.

I have every confidence that ALC staff will take the criticisms to heart and that next year’s ride-in will be better.

Until then, see you on the road!

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AIDS and HIV

U.S. announces more funding for HIV/AIDS fight in Latin America

Jill Biden made announcement on Saturday in Panama

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Former Panamanian first lady Lorena Castillo and UNAIDS in 2017 launched a campaign to fight discrimination against Panamanians with HIV/AIDS. Panama will receive $12.2 million in new PEPFAR funding to further combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Latin America. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

PANAMA CITY — First lady Jill Biden on Saturday announced the U.S. will provide an additional $80.9 million to the fight against HIV/AIDS in Latin America.

Biden during a visit to Casa Hogar el Buen Samaritano, a shelter for people with HIV/AIDS in Panama City, said the State Department will earmark an additional $80.9 million for President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief-funded work in Latin America. A Panamanian activist with whom the Washington Blade spoke said LGBTQ+ people were among those who met with the first lady during her visit.

Pope Francis visited the shelter in 2019.

“I’m glad we have the opportunity to talk about how the United States and Panama can work together to combat HIV,” said the first lady.

Michael LaRosa, the first lady’s spokesperson, noted Panama will receive $12.2 million of the $80.9 million in PEPFAR funding.

“This funding, pending Congressional notification, will support expanded HIV/AIDS services and treatment,” said LaRosa.

UNAIDS statistics indicate an estimated 31,000 Panamanians were living with HIV/AIDS in 2020. The first lady’s office notes the country in 2020 had the highest number of “newly notificated cases of HIV/AIDS” in Central America.

The first lady visited Panama as part of a trip that included stops in Ecuador and Costa Rica.

The Summit of the Americas will take place next month in Los Angeles. The U.S. Agency for International Development and PEPFAR in April announced they delivered more than 18 million doses of antiretroviral drugs for Ukrainians with HIV/AIDS.

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AIDS and HIV

New highly-infectious variant of HIV discovered by Dutch scientists

This new variant of HIV-1 damaged the immune system twice as fast, “placing individuals at risk of developing AIDS much more rapidly”

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The human immunodeficiency virus in the bloodstream (Photo Credit: NIH/CDC)

CAMBRIDGE, UK – A study published this week by Science (journal) detailed an alarming discovery by researchers, clinicians and epidemiologists in the Netherlands of a new, highly-infectious mutated variant strain of the human immunodeficiency virus, (HIV), circulating in the country.

The BEEHIVE project – which stands for “bridging the epidemiology and evolution of HIV in Europe and Uganda,” detailed the findings which showed that a distinct subtype-B viral variant of HIV-1 damaged the immune system twice as fast, “placing individuals at risk of developing AIDS much more rapidly”, and those with this variant were at a higher risk of transmitting the virus to others.

The variant, known as the “VB variant”, causes CD4 cell decline to occur twice as fast in infected individuals compared with other viral variants. This is a clinical hallmark, or “signature” of the extent of damage caused by the HIV virus. In addition, those infected with the VB variant also demonstrated an increased risk of transmitting the virus to others, the data suggests.

Individuals infected with the new “VB variant” (for virulent subtype B) showed significant differences before antiretroviral treatment compared with individuals infected with other HIV variants:

  • Individuals with the VB variant had a viral load (the level of the virus in the blood) between 3.5 and 5.5 times higher.
  • In addition, the rate of CD4 cell decline (the hallmark of immune system damage by HIV) occurred twice as fast in individuals with the VB variant, placing them at risk of developing AIDS much more rapidly.
  • Individuals with the VB variant also showed an increased risk of transmitting the virus to others.

The project’s researchers, clinicians and epidemiologists did determine however, that those infected with the VB variant had “similar immune system recovery and survival to individuals with other HIV variants.”

However, the researchers stress that because the VB variant causes a more rapid decline in immune system strength, this makes it critical that individuals are diagnosed early and start treatment as soon as possible.

BEEHIVE project‘s lead author Dr Chris Wymant, from the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute and Nuffield Department of Medicine, said: “Before this study, the genetics of the HIV virus were known to be relevant for virulence, implying that the evolution of a new variant could change its impact on health. Discovery of the VB variant demonstrated this, providing a rare example of the risk posed by viral virulence evolution.”

“Our findings emphasize the importance of World Health Organization guidance that individuals at risk of acquiring HIV have access to regular testing to allow early diagnosis, followed by immediate treatment. This limits the amount of time HIV can damage an individual’s immune system and jeopardise their health. It also ensures that HIV is suppressed as quickly as possible, which prevents transmission to other individuals,” Senior author Professor Christophe Fraser from the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute and Nuffield Department of Medicine, added.

In its Global HIV & AIDS statistics — Fact sheet, the UNAIDS Secretariat detailed the statistical data: 

GLOBAL HIV STATISTICS

  • 28.2 million people were accessing antiretroviral therapy as of 30 June 2021.
  • 37.7 million [30.2 million–45.1 million] people globally were living with HIV in 2020.
  • 1.5 million [1.0 million–2.0 million] people became newly infected with HIV in 2020.
  • 680 000 [480 000–1.0 million] people died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2020. 
  • 79.3 million [55.9 million–110 million] people have become infected with HIV since the start of the epidemic.
  • 36.3 million [27.2 million–47.8 million] people have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the start of the epidemic.

People living with HIV                                                                          

  • In 2020, there were 37.7 million [30.2 million–45.1 million] people living with HIV.
    • 36.0 million [28.9 million–43.2 million] adults.
    • 1.7 million [1.2 million–2.2 million] children (0–14 years).
    • 53% of all people living with HIV were women and girls.
  • 84% [67– >98%] of all people living with HIV knew their HIV status in 2020.
  • About 6.1 million [4.9 million–7.3 million] people did not know that they were living with HIV in 2020.

People living with HIV accessing antiretroviral therapy

  • As of 30 June 2021, 28.2 million people were accessing antiretroviral therapy, up from 7.8 million [6.9 million–7.9 million] in 2010.
  • In 2020, 73% [56–88%] of all people living with HIV were accessing treatment.
    • 74% [57–90%] of adults aged 15 years and older living with HIV had access to treatment, as did 54% [37–69%] of children aged 0–14 years.
    • 79% [61–95%] of female adults aged 15 years and older had access to treatment; however, just 68% [52–83%] of male adults aged 15 years and older had access.
  • 85% [63– >98%] of pregnant women living with HIV had access to antiretroviral medicines to prevent transmission of HIV to their child in 2020.

New HIV infections

  • New HIV infections have been reduced by 52% since the peak in 1997.
    • In 2020, around 1.5 million [1.0 million–2.0 million] people were newly infected with HIV, compared to 3.0 million [2.1 million–4.2 million] people in 1997.
    • Women and girls accounted for 50% of all new infections in 2020.
  • Since 2010, new HIV infections have declined by 31%, from 2.1 million [1.5 million–2.9 million] to 1.5 million [1.0 million–2.0 million] in 2020.
    • Since 2010, new HIV infections among children have declined by 53%, from 320 000 [210 000–510 000] in 2010 to 150 000 [100 000–240 000] in 2020.

AIDS-related deaths

  • AIDS-related deaths have been reduced by 64% since the peak in 2004 and by 47% since 2010.
    • In 2020, around 680 000 [480 000–1 million] people died from AIDS-related illnesses worldwide, compared to 1.9 million [1.3 million–2.7 million] people in 2004 and 1.3 million [910 000–1.9 million] people in 2010.
  • AIDS-related mortality has declined by 53% among women and girls and by 41% among men and boys since 2010.
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AIDS and HIV

‘Promising’ HIV vaccine study conducted at George Washington University

“We are tremendously excited to be advancing this new direction in HIV vaccine design with Moderna’s mRNA platform”

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Courtesy of the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences

WASHINGTON – D.C.’s George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences is one of four sites across the country in which a preliminary component of an experimental HIV vaccine is being given to volunteer participants in a study aimed at reversing years of failed attempts to develop an effective HIV vaccine by pursuing what study sponsors say is a new, promising approach.

The study, which involves 56 healthy, HIV-negative volunteer participants, is being conducted by the nonprofit scientific research organization known as IAVI and the biotechnology company Moderna, which developed one of the coronavirus vaccines now being used throughout the world.

In a Jan. 27 joint statement, IAVI and Moderna said their study is part of a Phase 1 trial designed to test newly developed experimental HIV vaccine antigens to determine if they will lead to the development of an effective HIV vaccine.  

According to scientific literature, antigens are substances such as bacteria, viruses, and chemicals that induce the body to release antibodies that fight off infections. The statement by IAVI and Moderna says a vaccine technology developed by Moderna to use another component of the human body called messenger RNA or mRNA to strengthen a potential vaccine’s ability to fight off infection by HIV is also a part of this vaccine study.

“We are tremendously excited to be advancing this new direction in HIV vaccine design with Moderna’s mRNA platform,” Mark Feinberg, president and CEO of IAVI, says in the statement. “The search for an HIV vaccine has been long and challenging and having new tools in terms of immunogens and platforms could be the key to making rapid progress toward an urgently needed, effective HIV vaccine,” he says in the statement.

The statement says that scientific teams at IAVI and the biotechnology firm Scripps Research helped to develop the HIV vaccine antigens being tested in the trials taking place at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences and at locations in Atlanta, Ga., Seattle, Wash., and San Antonio, Tex.

It says the trial involving the 56 volunteer participants — who are divided among the four sites — began on Jan. 27 and is being funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Among those calling the IAVI-Moderna trial an important step in HIV vaccine development is Carl Dieffenbach, director of the Division of AIDS at the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which is part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

“This is a variation of a theme,” Dieffenbach told the Washington Blade. “IAVI in collaboration with NIH did a version of this study already with a protein form of this immunogen,” Dieffenbach said. He said that study worked out well and was published in a scientific journal.

“What’s unique about this latest study is they’re using RNA to deliver the vaccine rather than a protein,” said Dieffenbach. “So, this is an important step for us in the vaccine field, that they can now compare the protein to the RNA.”

Dieffenbach said the IAVI-Moderna trial is taking place after two other recently completed HIV vaccine studies involving human trials that NIAID was involved in resulted in findings that the two experimental HIV vaccines were ineffective. He said a third HIV vaccine study NIAID is involved in that is taking place in the U.S. and South America is expected to be completed in about a year.

The ongoing study in the Americas involves men who have sex with men and transgender individuals as those participating in that vaccine trial, he said.

Dieffenbach said in addition to the vaccine studies, NIAID is monitoring at least two studies of medication aimed at curing HIV. One of the studies was conducted by HIV researcher Dr. Timothy Schacker, who serves as Vice Dean for research at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

Schacker arranged for human trials of people who are HIV positive and taking standard anti-retroviral HIV medication to be given an experimental HIV cure medication developed by the biotechnology company ImmunityBio called Anktiva, according to a Jan. 31 statement released by ImmunityBio.

The statement says the trials showed promising results in the ability of Anktiva to induce the immune system of HIV-positive patients under standard HIV treatment who participated in the study to “kill” the latent or “hidden” HIV in their body that would otherwise reactivate and cause illness if they stopped taking HIV medication.

The goal of the development of Anktiva is to “rid the body of the virus for good and eliminate the need for antiretroviral therapy,” the company’s statement says.

Dieffenbach said his office was also monitoring an HIV cure study being conducted by the Rockville, Md., based genetic engineering company called American Gene Technologies. The company is conducting a human trial for a therapeutic treatment it has developed that’s intended to enable the immune system of HIV-positive people to permanently eliminate HIV from their bodies. The company has said it was hopeful that early results of the effectiveness of the treatment would become available this year.

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