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AIDS and HIV

40 years later, activism, resilience, hope and remembrance

Speaker Pelosi & Congresswoman Lee laid a wreath at the Memorial, joined by San Francisco Mayor Breed & National AIDS Memorial CEO Cunningham

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Photo Credit: National AIDS Memorial

SAN FRANCISCO – Leaders of the AIDS movement came together in the National AIDS Memorial – the nation’s federally-designated memorial to AIDS – to mark forty years since the first cases of AIDS were reported in the United States.

Surrounded by the power of 40 blocks of the AIDS Memorial Quilt and the beauty of the 10-acre Memorial Grove where thousands of names lost to AIDS are engraved, the leaders paid tribute to the more than 700,000 lives lost, the survivors, and the heroes during the past four decades.  They also called for renewed action to provide care for long-term survivors, young people living with HIV today, and finding a cure that will finally end the epidemic.

“On this solemn day, forty years since the discovery of HIV/AIDS, Americans pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands of Americans we have lost to this vicious disease and draw strength from the more than one million courageous survivors living with HIV today,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi.  “Moved by the beauty of the Grove and power of the Quilt, this morning we again renewed our vow to finally defeat the scourge of AIDS and bring hope and healing to all those affected.  Thanks to the tireless leadership of activists, survivors, scientists and the LGBTQ community, we will not relent until we banish HIV to the dustbin of history and achieve an AIDS-free generation.”

Speaker Pelosi and Congresswoman Barbara Lee laid a wreath at the Memorial, joined by San Francisco Mayor London Breed, former U.S. Ambassador James Hormel, and other AIDS leaders to honor loved ones lost with prayer and a moment of silence.  During a formal program that followed, two generations of advocates spoke of the activism, resilience, hope and remembrance that has defined the AIDS movement and helped shape other health and social justice movements during the past four decades.

The commemoration, which was streamed to a national audience, raised greater awareness about the plight of HIV/AIDS today, the progress made, and the continued fight against stigma and discrimination.  The observance also honored long-term survivors and served as a call to action to finally find a cure, four decades later.  HIV rates continue to rise in the U.S., with 1.2 million people living with HIV today, particularly impacting young people and communities of color.

“Forty years later we stand on the shoulders of trailblazers who understood that every person deserves empathy and care regardless of their health conditions or sexuality,” said California Governor Gavin Newsom in a video message.  “This current pandemic has shown us that health inequities still exist and it’s up to each and every one of us to continue the fight and to never, ever accept the status quo.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who introduced a tribute video to long-term survivors, said, “the accomplishments (over the past 40 years) are a direct result of the unique, long-standing partnerships that were forged and continue today between scientists, healthcare providers, industry and the HIV-affected community. The HIV/AIDS pandemic is not over. Ending the HIV pandemic is an achievable goal, one that will require that we collectively work together. As we honor the long-term HIV/AIDS survivors today and remember all that we’ve lost, we must rededicate our commitment and continue to advance our efforts to ending the HIV pandemic.”

Cleve Jones left rear watches as House Speaker Pelosi, SF Mayor London Breed, Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Chief Executive John Cunningham lay wreath at National AIDS Memorial on 40th Anniversary of AIDS (Photo Credit: National AIDS Memorial)

The day of public tributes and remembrance included a powerful 40 block outdoor public display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt that included more than 300 hand-sewn Quilt panels with nearly 1,200 names stitched into them. A group of young children whose parents serve on the Board of the National AIDS Memorial presented and helped unveil block 6,000of the Quilt to Quilt Co-Founders Cleve Jones and Gert McMullin, a reminder that four decades later, Quilt panels are still being sewn, to honor those lost to HIV/AIDS, then and now.

“These stories and this important observance highlight the issues our nation faced in the past year — a raging pandemic with hundreds of thousands of lives lost, social injustice, health inequity, stigma, bigotry and fear,” said National AIDS Memorial Chief Executive John Cunningham. “However, these are also the same issues faced throughout four decades of the AIDS pandemic. They are reasons why today, we have a National AIDS Memorial, and why, as a nation, we have much more work to do in the fight for a just future, where HIV/AIDS no longer exists.”

“The Quilt is a poignant and important reminder of why we must work with a sense of urgency to help end the epidemic,” said Daniel O’Day, Chairman and CEO of Gilead Sciences. “It will take the ongoing collaborative efforts of many groups working together, including activists, advocates, scientists and the LGBTQ+ community, to ensure that in another 40 years from now, the HIV epidemic is part of history. Gilead partners with allies like the National AIDS Memorial to remember those we’ve lost and raise greater awareness about the root causes driving the HIV epidemic, such as stigma, racism, homophobia and transphobia.”

Gilead Sciences is the presenting partner for the commemoration, joining together with Quest Diagnostics, Chevron, Vivent Health, Equality California and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation in supporting the day-long public observance.

Along with being invited to experience the 40 Quilt block display, the public was able to participate in the reading aloud the names of loved ones lost to AIDS, softly amplified in the Memorial. Throughout the day, visitors laid hundreds of roses in the Memorial Grove and  left personal tributes. Touching musical performances from the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and the Messengers of Hope Gospel Choir, led by Earnest Larkins and featuring artists Ja Ronn and Flow, provided special inspirational moments.

A powerful spoken word performance, written and produced by Mary Bowman Arts in Activism awardee Ima Diawara and Pedro Zamora Young Leaders Scholar Antwan Matthews, highlighted the role of young people today in the fight against HIV/AIDS.  They expressed, “the time has come for us to elevate. The time has come for us to watch out for everybody on the block, even the people that do not own the real estate. it’s time to connect the wisdom of our elders with the wisdom of our youth and make life livable again, for all of us. It’s time for us to slow down and most importantly – it’s time to breathe.”

The 40th anniversary commemoration observance can be viewed in its entirety at www.aidsmemorial.org.   The National AIDS Memorial has also created a storytelling series, sharing a collection of heroes, survivors and lost loved ones to AIDS during the last four decades.

In West Hollywood, the Foundation for The AIDS Monument held a private groundbreaking event to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the first CDC report related to AIDS. The event was held at the future site of STORIES: The AIDS Monument in West Hollywood Park. 

Overhead view artist’s rendering of future WeHo AIDS Monument

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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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