By Kambiz Shekdar, Ph.D.
Our goal with any infectious disease must be to end it. In the case of HIV/AIDS, we missed game-changing opportunities and it continues to fester among us. Here, I provide the recipe to eradicate SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 for good.
The early days of HIV/AIDS witnessed an unprecedented feat in science and medicine: Never before was a previously unknown and deadly pathogen identified and addressed with life-saving drugs so quickly. Once HIV/AIDS stopped killing us, however, stagnation set in.
It is true that AIDS medications were continually improved. It is also true that new drugs were innovated. It is even true that new uses of these drugs were invented, like their use as prophylactics (PrEP). Unfortunately, while we kept doing what we already knew how to do, breakthrough opportunities to actually cure AIDS silently went by, almost unnoticed.
The first AIDS patient was cured in 2007. At a time when few thought this was possible, experts and the public alike dismissed it as a case of false hope. It did not help matters that the first cure of AIDS was the brainchild of an outsider—a leukemia doctor and not an HIV/AIDS researcher or clinician—who connected the dots everyone else had missed to cure AIDS, nonetheless.
This first instance of the cure for AIDS would have been the definition of a disruptive technology—something that had the potential to shake the status quo had we acted on it—but we failed to act on it. By the time the second patient was cured of AIDS in 2019, more than a decade of opportunity to develop a broadly-accessible cure for all those in need had already been lost.
Now when the entire world is focused on SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19, countless laboratories, biotech and pharmaceutical companies, including my own, have added their talents, teams and technologies to effort to combat the pandemic. No doubt progress will be made. But what happens when we stop dying of COVID-19 and can start living again, perhaps comfortably, with coronavirus still in our midst? Will we become cavalier and complacent and miss the next opportunities to nix this disease for good, too?
It is now that we must learn from the past. The nature of government is bureaucracy, but innovation is not a bureaucratic enterprise. Our experience with HIV/AIDS demonstrates that improvements to how our government manages scientific innovation are in order.
We must guarantee that those leading the charge keep their finger on the pulse of innovation. Just as we have term-limits for the office of president, I propose we implement a maximum of one four-year term for key leadership positions at federal agencies tasked to lead our nation’s response to pandemics. Science and technology move at the speed of imagination. We cannot risk missing a single beat. This leadership shuffle will keep our vital agencies on their toes. Those who have accomplished their successes will be continually replenished with a new crop of captains whose job is to achieve even more.
Kambiz Shekdar, Ph.D. is a biologist, a biotech inventor, co-founder of Chromocell Corporation, gay man, and president of Research Foundation to Cure AIDS (RFTCA). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about joining RFTCA’s founders’ circle.