By Kambiz Shekdar, Ph.D.
The upcoming town hall among U.S. presidential candidates on October 10th will focus on LGBT issues. The choice to address AIDS in this debate could surprise and disrupt the current HIV/AIDS landscape.
It’s remarkable that during the last presidential election, a coalition of AIDS activists adopted the following (invalid) consensus position: “We now have the means to end the global and U.S. HIV epidemics, even without a vaccine or a cure.”
When the same activists met with Bernie Sanders, The New York Times reported: “Sanders seemed to be churning internally about something until, dispensing with ceremony, he blurted out: ‘Let me be blunt. Do any of you get money from the drug companies?’” (see “C.E.O. of H.I.V.”). The response was silence, according to the Times. As HIV/AIDS activists used to say, Silence = Death.
It was not until a month ago that Washington Blade broke that silence when it reported on the eye-opening resignation of Kyle Murphy as communications director of AIDS United (see “AIDS Group Official Resigns over Group’s Acceptance of Drug Company Funds”). AIDS United manages the largest and longest running coalition of AIDS organizations.
In his letter of resignation, Murphy stated, “…we have been slowly bought off. And most of us know it. We just aren’t willing to say it.” An excerpt from the Blade also includes: “‘I cannot say that Gilead Sciences or any other pharmaceutical company has inappropriately influenced any decision that the leadership of AIDS United or any of its many partners have made,’ Murphy states in his letter. ‘But I do know that their status as a contributor is a consideration when we decide how to respond to questions around drug pricing, PrEP access, and drug safety,’ he wrote.”
I agree with Murphy; our AIDS and LGBT organizations have been compromised. The Senior Vice President of Public Affairs at Gilead, Amy Flood, sits on the board of AIDS United. According to her biography, Flood pioneered Gilead’s HIV/AIDS marketing starting with the company’s very first AIDS drug. As I reported last month, Gilead pays AIDS and LGBT organizations hundreds of millions; these organizations, including AIDS United, in turn tout Gilead’s new AIDS prophylactic Truvada® / PrEP as a cure (see “Wild-West” Ad Culture on Facebook Targets Youth).
As Truvada / PrEP does not protect against drug-resistant HIV/AIDS, we are slowly but surely incubating drug-resistant AIDS. In my view as a scientist, Gilead’s payments have brought us knee-deep into the making of a situation potentially as devastating as the opioid epidemic when the PrEP bubble bursts, if not worse. The AIDS saga will not, and cannot, end without a cure to bolster our treatment and prevention tools. Our comfort living with HIV/AIDS is in need of disruption, as disruptive technologies catapult us to higher horizons. A cure for AIDS must replace our current state of complacency no matter how profitable this stagnancy is for Gilead.
During the LGBT town hall, I’ll be watching for a leader who can free the LGBT community from the grip of AIDS and the business of this disease.
Top 10 Questions Regarding Curing AIDS
- If elected president, will your administration offer each of the more than 1.1 million Americans living with HIV/AIDS today any reason to hope for a cure in their lifetimes?
- Pharmaceutical manufacturers of AIDS medications have saved countless lives; they have also reaped billions in profits. What in your view is Big Pharma’s corporate social responsibility, if any, to share the costs of developing and implementing a cure?
- When America set its sights on winning, American ingenuity, talent and resources have achieved near impossible goals including landing a man on the moon. As president, will you marshal our might in a new “Manhattan Project” to cure AIDS?
- Curing AIDS is as much about making room for new ideas and teams as it is about the science and technology. How will you carve out space for cellular therapies in an arena dominated by AIDS medications alone?
- An AIDS cure will offer limited national value if it is only affordable by the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. How will you ensure that tomorrow’s breakthrough therapies will reach all Americans regardless of ability to pay?
- By considering parameters for global implementation at the outset, the United States can help ensure that cellular therapies are developed such that they may be implemented from Park Avenue to the Sudan. How could you envision working with the international community to bring about a global cure for AIDS?
- Gilead Sciences, Inc., a major manufacturer of AIDS medications, is known to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to AIDS and LGBT organizations that go on to advertise its drugs on social media. What is your view of the need for transparency and accountability when it comes to the marketing of prescription drugs?
- Heavy use of the new AIDS prophylactic drug Truvada® / PrEP manufactured by Gilead Sciences, Inc. has dropped HIV infection rates but opened the door to drug-resistant HIV/AIDS. How will you prevent the new paradigm in which people require ever-newer, stronger, more expensive and more obligatory pharmaceuticals, just to have sex?
- Even with the best medical care, doctors and insurance policies, people living with HIV/AIDS continue to suffer from side-effects, immune systems that do not fully bounce back and AIDS-related dementia. Until there is a cure, how will you help people living with HIV/AIDS achieve optimal health outcomes?
- President George W. Bush is credited with averting a global AIDS calamity via his administration’s plan, President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). President Trump pledged to end the U.S. AIDS epidemic by 2030. Are you excited, ready, willing and able to rise to the opportunity and challenge of being the president to cure AIDS?
The author is a biologist, a biotech inventor, a gay man and the President of Research Foundation to Cure AIDS . Visit FreeFromAIDS.org to learn more about the RFTCA mission.