AIDS 2020 – the first virtual International AIDS Conference – begins today, with HIV researchers and advocates from around the world coming together online to connect and share the latest scientific advancements in HIV/AIDS.
We recently caught up with Hal Martin, Moupali Das and Martin Rhee, executive directors of Virology Clinical Research, who work together and with their teams to advance the company’s HIV treatment and prevention development programs.
Read what they had to say about the science being presented at AIDS 2020, the importance of continuing to innovate and what lessons the AIDS epidemic offers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Martin: As always, I’m excited to learn about and contribute to the latest science in the field. What I look forward to the most at scientific meetings is the opportunity to meet people who are dedicated to ending the epidemic. I’m interested to see how the new virtual format will enable those interactions.
Moupali: I would agree – one of my favorite parts of attending is reconnecting with colleagues, scientists, activists and friends from around the world. It will be interesting to see if we can use virtual networking and online chat to replicate those serendipitous hallway conversations that lead to a great idea for a study or a new collaboration with an investigator.
Moupali: Regarding HIV prevention, we will share data about the impact on sexual behavior and the incidence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) from the Phase 3 DISCOVER HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) trial, the largest PrEP study to date. The data show that there is no evidence of an increase in sexual risk behavior from baseline when individuals at risk take PrEP within the context of a clinical trial with routine counseling and asymptomatic STI testing. Moreover, STI rates actually decreased slightly from baseline, suggesting that engagement in PrEP offers opportunities to further engage individuals at risk for HIV in sexual healthcare.
Hal: Continuing work on these types of studies during the pandemic presents challenges. In most regions, clinical trial enrollment was stopped and is now slowly reopening. Disruption to our studies and access to care can influence engagement in HIV care at the individual, systemic and community level, threatening the progress made against HIV. We’ve looked for opportunities to consider innovative approaches to continue studying and advancing our research and development programs, such as setting up digital networks, using telehealth and leveraging at-home health services.
Martin: Our focus on long-acting regimens stems from listening to those who are living with or at risk of acquiring HIV. Many people have told us they want to be free from the burden and potential stigma of taking a daily pill. Long-acting regimens have the potential to help meet this need and provide an important option to help more people stay on treatment. Cure remains the ultimate long-term goal for our research and development efforts, – but science takes time. While we continue to make progress testing investigational curative regimens, it’s important that we keep listening to communities affected by HIV to understand their needs.
Moupali: In addition to our company’s heritage of scientific innovation, I’m proud of the work Gilead has done to make our medicines available in the developing world and address the epidemic in communities where its impact is most severe. We’re pleased to have contributed to tremendous progress in addressing HIV, but there is more work to be done. It’s important that we continue seeking new therapeutic options, but also find innovative ways to support the development and delivery of practical solutions that enhance care for people living with or at risk of acquiring HIV – regardless of where they live or their background.
Hal: The biggest takeaway for me is that our actions can help end this pandemic. In any epidemic or pandemic, it’s important that we all listen to what our scientists and public health experts discover through research and observation, and act accordingly – especially while the world awaits more effective treatment options and vaccines.
Moupali: Infectious diseases track along the fault lines of social inequality. People living with or at risk of acquiring HIV are often disproportionately impacted by many other structural issues, including racism, stigma, health inequity, and poverty. Many of these issues place the same communities at risk of acquiring COVID-19, and if people in these communities become ill, they are at greater risk for a more severe disease course. The disparate impact of COVID-19 on Black people and other people of color has brought these fault lines in our society into sharp focus. Addressing these structural issues is essential as we seek to help people and communities impacted by COVID-19 – and by HIV.
Photo: Pictured from left to right are Hal Martin, Moupali Das and Martin Rhee.