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EQCA filling LGBTQ COVID-19 resource need, echoing early days of AIDS

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Twitter May 17, delivering commencement address to Smith college

The coronavirus pandemic has upended normality and the once seemingly inevitable full equality for LGBTQ people. One year ago, on May 17, the US House of Representatives passed the historic Equality Act, legislation that would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include sexual orientation and gender identity. But Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to bring the nondiscrimination legislation up for a vote, leaving LGBTQ equality dangling as the Trump administration meticulously strips away hard-won rights and the conservative-dominant U.S. Supreme Court is poised to rule on whether federal job protections for LGBTQ people under Title VII are constitutional.

If the Court strikes down those protections, federal employees and workers in 28 states without LGBTQ employment nondiscrimination laws —  including essential first responders and healthcare workers — could be quietly, individually, unceremoniously fired, adding to the burgeoning roster of the unemployed, which in April hit 14.7%, the highest rate since the Great Depression. What will happen to LGBTQ people in states with nondiscrimination laws?

But even if by some miracle the Equality Act makes it to the Oval Office, it may not feel the flare of President Trump’s special sharpie since he opposes the legislation, despite his love affair with former Fox contributor Ric Grenell, the gay Ambassador to Germany.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn’t let the anniversary of the Equality Act pass unnoticed, however. Last year, she wore a rainbow wristband as she orchestrated the 236-173 bipartisan vote, invoking both the Founding Fathers and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots on the House floor. This year, her passion for LGBTQ equality was laced with tempered rage.

“This year, the ongoing challenge posed by the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic reaffirms our urgent responsibility to reject the violence, bigotry and hate that weaken and divide our communities,” Pelosi said, in part. “For LGBTQ individuals at home and around the world who are persecuted because of who they are or whom they love, we must speak out and demand action.  We cannot stay silent while the Trump Administration’s callous, anti-LGBTQ agenda continues to dismantle decades of hard-won progress by stripping LGBTQ Americans of their rights and their dignity.  And we cannot stand by while the Administration abandons our global leadership in the fight against anti-LGBTQ violence and discrimination.”

Powerful words that comfort and inspire, hang in the air, then vanish. Today, like the beginning of the AIDS crisis three decades ago, LGBTQ people are disappearing, identities erased by government neglect, the weight of bureaucracy, and the lack of action, despite good intentions.

On May 19, there were 1.56 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United states, with 92,258 deaths. The government collected data on gender, age, race and ethnicity – but how many of these human beings were LGBTQ?

On the afternoon of May 19, the state of California reported a total of 81,795 cases of coronavirus, with 3,334 deaths. California has the largest LGBTQ population in the country so how many of these people are LGBTQ?

On the afternoon of May 19, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health identified 39,573 positive cases of COVID-19, with a total of 1,913 deaths, noting that 92 percent of the people who died had underlying health conditions.

“An interactive dashboard is available that provides an overview on COVID-19 testing, cases and deaths along with maps and graphs showing testing, cases and death data by community poverty level, age, sex and race/ethnicity,” says a Public Health press release promoting their website, www.publichealth.lacounty.gov. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not included.

For LGBTQ people who survived the AIDS crisis, the pain of this erasure evokes a “safer-at-home” primal scream.

“[E]ssentially no data is being collected in California or elsewhere about COVID-19 impacts on the LGBT community on infection rates, on hospitalization rates, on death rates — that data simply isn’t being collected,” said out State Sen. Scott Wiener on a Zoom news conference May 13 before testifying before the California Senate Health Committee on his LGBTQ data collection bill, SB 932. “It is appalling that we have the ability to collect the data and it’s simply — it’s an afterthought. And that is, unfortunately, the history of the LGBTQ community where we have to fight against invisibility all the time, we have to fight to be counted.”

Equality California Executive Director Rick Chavez Zbur was pained to say that “the fight before us just about collecting this data reminds me more of the 1980s than I want to admit. For our community to once again be erased and ignored, to have our government look the other way as our community dies nearly four decades later, it’s just appalling, it’s unacceptable.”

The difference between the 1980s and now though, Zbur said, was that today the LGBTQ community has openly LGBTQ leaders and allies working to correct the dire inequality the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed.

But it doesn’t feel that way.

There was plenty of time to kick existing LGBTQ health and death data laws into gear, tailoring unique messages, mentioning the LGBTQ community as one of the minority groups at greater risk for infection and inviting help to test and track LGBTQ COVID-19 cases.

“This new virus represents a tremendous public health threat,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters on a telephonic news briefing Tuesday, Feb.25, when the Los Angeles Blade first starting covering the COVID-19 crisis.

“Ultimately we expect we will see community spread in this country,” she said. “It’s not a question of if this will happen but when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses ….We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad.”

At a Feb. 27 news conference, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said there was no coronavirus emergency in the state but 33 people tested positive, most quarantined travelers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, adding that following protocol, California was monitoring more than 8,4000 people who flew from Asia to California.

Meanwhile, a woman from Solano County tested positive for COVID-19 on March 1, appearing to be the first US case for which there was no known source for the illness. But at a Newsom news conference, California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly noted that the woman had been sick in the community well before she was hospitalized. Contact tracing revealed that two Los Rios Community College District college students, working as medical professionals, had come in contact with her and were being isolated and “treated” in Sacramento County. Additionally, three UC Davis roommates were under 14-day isolation “out of an abundance of caution” after one showed mild symptoms, according to the Los Angeles Times.

And then there was the whistleblower who revealed that HHS “sent more than a dozen workers to receive the first Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, without proper training for infection control or appropriate protective gear,” the Washington Post reported. “The workers did not show symptoms of infection and were not tested for the virus, according to lawyers for the whistleblower. Out Rep. Mark Takano was furious when those evacuees were sent to March Air Force Base in Southern California.

Three months ago, HHS, the CDC, the State of California, and LA Public Health knew there was a strong likelihood that community spread of COVID-19 would be bad but didn’t gear up to protect first responders, healthcare workers or the public. Nor did they extend collection of demographic data needed to track outbreaks beyond gender and age when West Hollywood, LA and California declared a health emergency.

LGBTQ people were good citizens, responsibly taking part in the greater mitigation effort when officials ordered large gatherings to be cancelled  and businesses closed.

On March 11, an open letter from more than 100 organizations specifying how COVID-19 could impact LGBTQ communities was distributed to the media, healthcare workers and public officials. It outlined how COVID-19 “may pose an increased risk to the LGBTQ+ population” with vulnerabilities and underlying medical conditions and laid out “specific steps to minimize any disparity.” For instance: 37% of LGBTQ adults smoke every day compared to 27% of non-LGBTQ people; 21% of LGBTQ people have asthma, compared to 14% of non-LGBTQ people.

“[W]e need to make sure the most vulnerable among us are not forgotten. Our smoking rates alone make us extremely vulnerable and our access to care barriers only make a bad situation worse.” noted Dr. Scout, the Deputy Director for the National LGBT Cancer Network, “This letter outlines simple steps to ensure no population is further stigmatized by a virus.”

The LGBTQ community responded. “The situation with COVID-19 is changing quickly. I don’t know whether we will be closed for a few days, a few weeks or even longer. Until our public health officials can assure us that it is safe, we will remain closed,” David Cooley wrote in a March 16 Facebook post announcing he was shutting down The Abbey in West Hollywood. “I am saddened that it has come to this. If staying open caused the pandemic to spread more quickly, I would be inconsolable. I know this crisis will pass. When it does, we will all celebrate together.”

Meanwhile, Trump began a pattern of lies and magical thinking. “It’s going to disappear,” Trump assured the world on March 17, having previously declared the coronavirus was “well under control” in this country.

The LGBTQ nonprofit safety net started to fray, but they bucked up to behave responsibly, as well. The LA LGBT Center said they were starting tele-health contacts, protecting seniors, homeless youth and staff from COVID-19; Project Angel Food issued a dire call for volunteers and the [email protected] Coalition closed but still provided food and sought shelter for clients.

Accustomed to equality in Southern California, LGBTQ people felt part of the larger community response. In a March 16 phone interview, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti recalled the community’s historic experience with the AIDS crisis.

“This community has been through tougher days than this and the most important thing is to not only be resilient but to be calm,” Garcetti told the LA Blade. “The LGBTQ community — which has seen what spread can do to a community and how devastating it can be — can really be the leaders of influencing in our workplaces, with our families and with others.”

The LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS communities did their part. The Los Angeles County Commission on HIV  released an Interim Guidance for healthcare providers and persons living with HIV and underscoring the statewide and local “Safer At Home” orders. And nonprofit leaders such Jeffrey King, founder and executive director of In The Meantime Men, found ways to address issues no one else was discussing.

“The coronavirus has us all making major adjustments in our lives,” King said in a video posted on his Facebook page. “I want to encourage you to stay connected, and to consider your risk. Many of us are still engaging in sex. Our sex clubs and gay-specific social venues are closing now. Our social dating apps, however, are in full effect. Again – I want you to consider your risk and to act responsibly.”

But LGBTQ people started disappearing and dying, including icons such as playwright Terrence McNally.

Then, towards the end of March came the surge. Frontline community clinics and health centers that faced a shortage of test kits and medical supplies pleaded for help. Jim Mangia, Chief Executive of St. John’s Well Child and Family Center, one of the few LA-area clinics that serve transgender clients of color, told reporters on a March 24 conference call that the situation was dire. The week before, 879 patients “were required to be placed in triage tents to isolate them from other patients,” the LA Times reported. No data on how many clients were transgender.

“Public health officials across California report that the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units (ICU) doubled overnight. As of 2 pm. Saturday, the state now has 4,643 confirmed cases and 101 deaths, a spokesperson for the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) told the Los Angeles Blade Saturday afternoon, adding that approximately 89,600 tests had been conducted as of March 27,” the LA Blade reported. Newsom was bracing for a possible torrent of new infections with testing increasingly becoming an issue.

“There’s as much as ten times as many cases of coronavirus infection than is being reported,” a medical worker at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center told the Blade. “I think that the death count is very likely much higher, because the criteria for testing is so strict. So, we don’t really know the actual infection rate or mortality rate is currently.”

But no one was talking to the LGBTQ community. Finally, attorney and West Hollywood City Councilmember John Duran started posting daily updates on his personal Facebook page — including one with a frank discussion about having sex in a pandemic.

On April 4, the LA Blade posted a number of essential LGBTQ services, including The Trevor Project which said its crisis contact volume spiked at nearly twice normal volume, especially as COVID-19 forced LGBTQ young people to return to or remain in unsupportive or abusive environments. (The Trevor Project’s TrevorLifeline 24/7 can be reached at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Help or by texting 678-678.)

That was also the day the LA Blade finally got through during Newsom’s regular news conferences and asked if the newly announced website (covid19supplies.ca.gov) met the specific health and economic needs of LGBTQ Californians, especially those living with HIV and LGBTQI+ residents solely dependent on the gig economy.

“Yeah, from across the spectrum from addressing homeless youth — particularly in LA County. So, the answer is ‘yes’ — from an LGBTQ perspective but also from a geographical perspective. And from an age perspective as it relates to finding more federal resources for housing opportunities for LGBTQ youth and adults. Look, I come from San Francisco, 5th generation, it’s a point of deep pride when we talk in terms of cultural competency, neighborhood by neighborhood,” Newsom said. “The history of the HIV epidemic searing the consciousness of our health care delivery focus — again a bottom-up focus, and yeah, of course that extended to Dr. Fauci, who is very familiar to the folks in San Francisco and within the LGBTQ community as being one of our heroes decades ago, in terms of how he met that moment and he spoke truth in that moment. So, the answer is absolutely ‘yes’ — point of pride for me as a former mayor of San Francisco, who’s deeply attached to the needs and desires and aspirations and the health of our LGBTQ community.”

“We are always grateful for Governor Newsom’s leadership, but perhaps never more than during this public health crisis. Governor Newsom has been a lifelong pro-equality champion and we know he and his team are prioritizing our LGBTQ+ community — and the diverse communities to which we belong — and will identify and implement specific solutions to meet the unique challenges we face,” Equality California’s Zbur wrote in an email to the LA Blade. “We look forward to working closely with the governor in the coming weeks and months to provide health and healing for LGBTQ+ and all Californians.”

But while public acknowledgements were appreciated, they were brief and unsustained. LA County and LA City news conferences never even mentioned the LGBTQ community when other minority groups or issues about access to care were highlighted. The LA Blade called out the disparities on April 14 noting that for all the attention of a slew of populations at high risk for contagion, LGBTQs were not included, nor was data being collected.

The LA Blade was not alone. On April 21, GLMA Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality issued a second open letter signed by more than 170 organizations calling for action “to protect LGBTQ patients from discrimination and to include sexual orientation and gender identity in data collection efforts related to the pandemic,” as well as the economic harm to LGBTQ communities.

By May 12, Newsom told the LA Blade that he and Dr. Sonia Angell were working with Sen. Wiener on the data collection bill – but he did not commit to signing an emergency executive order to demand that local providers and county health departments start collecting LGBTQ data that is being lost with every passing minute.

“I don’t think that there are any disagreements that this needs to happen,” Wiener said during the Zoom news conference. “Obviously, the Governor and current Public Health are drinking water from a fire hose right now, and so we will continue to work with them to make sure that this happens and that it’s prioritized.”

However, Wiener added, “I would love for the Governor to issue an executive order immediately,” using the language in the bill.

And what of the most marginalized of the marginalized? Despite California officially a sanctuary state, the Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants (DRAI) program is not accessible for transgender, gender-nonconforming, and Intersex (TGI) people, many of whom are people of color, who have difficulty meeting criteria, according to Bamby Salcedo, founder of [email protected] Coalition.

“All organizations distributing money under DRAI are non-LGBTQ specific, which further impacts LGBTQ people, particularly TGI people, from accessing these funds. Communities such as sex workers, houseless people, those who have been recently released from immigration detention who do not have any type of documentation, and all others that live at the intersections of identifying as TGI will experience significant difficulties in accessing DRAI funds,” Salcedo said in a May 19 press release.

Despite decades of seeming progress, thousands of votes to advance democracy, millions contributed to fundraisers and political campaigns — LGBTQ people are once again fending for themselves and taking care of each other.

On May 18, Equality California launched a consumer-friendly website and help line “to connect LGBTQ+ Californians impacted by the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) crisis with LGBTQ+ friendly resources and support services,” says an EQCA press release. The civil rights organization is also working to expand the website “to include comprehensive directories of service providers in each of the state’s 53 counties and launch a series of free webinars for people facing unemployment or lost wages.”

“The COVID-19 LGBTQ+ Help Center and Help Line are roadmaps for members of our community to find the support they need from providers who know and care about LGBTQ+ people,” says Zbur. “We’re in this together. Whether you need to get tested, file for unemployment or a loan, find a foodbank or talk to a mental health professional, we’re here to help. Go to the website, call the phone number or send us an email and we’ll get you to the right place.”

The Equality California website, funded by grants from the AT&T Foundation and Sempra Energy Foundation, outlines how LGBTQ+ people “face higher rates of comorbidities such as HIV and cancer, are more likely to use tobacco products, are less likely to have health insurance and less likely to access care when they are sick out of fear of discrimination,” are overrepresented in the industries hit hardest by the economic downturn, with elders who already faced isolation before the COVID crisis.

The goal of the Help Center and Help Line is to help LGBTQ+ people navigate the social safety net to find resources they need.

 LGBTQ people might be dis-counted by governmental agencies but as in the early days of AIDS, LGBTQ people are starting to take care of each other. What the future looks like for the otherwise invisible devastated community remains to be seen.

LGBTQ+ Californians facing healthcare, financial, social challenges are encouraged to visit covid19.eqca.org or call (323) 448-0126 for assistance.

 

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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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