Patiently waiting for a COVID-19 miracle every World AIDS Day

OPINION: World AIDS Day is an opportunity to learn the lessons of the COVID and HIV/AIDS pandemics and celebrate the potential for an HIV vaccine

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We don’t talk enough about the series of milestones, decades in the making, that made the COVID-19 vaccine possible.

We play small when it comes to the scientific breakthroughs that beget scientific breakthroughs. World AIDS Day 2021 offers us a humbling opportunity to examine the lessons of the COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS pandemics, all the while celebrating the enormous potential for an HIV vaccine within reach. 

What a difference a year and a new president can make. The COVID-19 vaccine miracle the nation was hoping for has come to pass after electing national leaders that chose to follow the science, not partisan polls. Community leaders that chose to build trust and educate the most vulnerable among us, not sow division. Activists understood their responsibility to remind the world about all the ways stigma gets in the way of saving lives.

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Imagine if America’s initial public health response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic had been as concerned, competent, compassionate, and supported by the federal government as it is now. We may not have lost a generation of friends, neighbors, and loved ones. We might have even invested more time, talent, and treasure developing a vaccine sooner. We might have seen our own humanity in the eyes of the afflicted before another fellow American was forced to die scared and alone. 

Now almost five decades into the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, we’re closer than ever to another game-changing vaccine to what was once the world’s greatest public health crisis, made worse only by stigma, suspicion, and misinformation.

According to Yonatan Grad, the Melvin J. and Geraldine L. Glimcher Associate Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard Chan School, “Past pandemics have led to massive changes in the way we live that we’ve come to accept as normal. Screens on our doors and windows helped keep out mosquitos that carried yellow fever and malaria. Sewer systems and access to clean water helped eliminate typhoid and cholera epidemics. Perhaps the lessons learned from COVID-19 in terms of disease prevention can yield similar long-term improvements in individual and global health.” 

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This Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020 file photo shows a vial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in the first round of staff vaccinations at a hospital in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

In August, Moderna, the company whose mRNA vaccine against COVID19 has been shown to provide a high level of protection, said that it was set to launch human trials of its experimental mRNA HIV vaccine.

“We certainly think that an HIV vaccine will be far and away the most complicated vaccine that we’ve ever had to put into the population,” said Derek Cain, of Duke University’s Human Vaccine Institute. “We don’t expect it to work 100% or 90% like the Covid vaccines, but even if we can get to 50-60% that would be a success; 70% would be amazing.”

To think that the same mRNA technology that gave us the COVID-19 vaccine, which likely offers us some level of protection from the widely reported omicron variant, might also offer us the first HIV vaccine, represents global health innovation at its best — especially if we keep drug cost affordable. 

HIV treatments can be expensive. One study estimated that the costs of this care could run anywhere between $1,800 to $4,500 each month during a person’s lifetime. Most of this, about 60%, comes from the high cost of antiretroviral therapy medications.

Licensed practical nurse Yokasta Castro, of Warwick, R.I., draws a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe at a mass vaccination clinic, Wednesday, May 19, 2021, at Gillette Stadium, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

In the barrage of daily reports of new COVID19 cases, deaths, and the emergence of new variants including the latest omicron variant first reported in South Africa, we forget “since COVID-19 vaccine distribution began in the United States on Dec. 14, more than 459 million doses have been administered, fully vaccinating over 196 million people or 59.3% of the total U.S. population.” This is a miracle given how deeply polarizing the vaccine, mask mandates, social distancing, and other public health interventions have become. 

We are surviving some of our worst impulses, suspicions, and misinformation efforts made more powerful by social media. Now it seems a critical mass of public health experts are cautiously optimistic we’re turning the corner away from the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are delivered to a pop-up clinic in April at Western International High School in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images)

By now, roughly 61% of adults have either received their first dose or are eager for one, up from 47 percent in January, according to the latest monthly survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

According to the New York Times, the shift was most striking among Black Americans, some of whom have previously expressed hesitancy but who have also had access issues. Since just February, 14% more Black adults said they wanted or had already gotten the vaccine. Overall, Black adults, who have also been on the receiving end of vigorous promotional campaigns by celebrities, local Black physicians, clergy members, and public health officials, now want the vaccine in numbers almost comparable to other leading demographic groups: 55%, compared with 61% for Latinos and 64% for white people.

According to the Center for Disease Control, “Although they represent only 12% of the U.S. population, Blacks account for a much larger share of HIV diagnoses (43%), people estimated to be living with HIV disease (42%), and deaths among people with HIV (44%) than any other racial/ethnic group in the U.S. Also important to note that “among Black Americans, Black women, youth, and gay and bisexual men have been especially hard hit.”

There is no better occasion than World AIDS Day to reflect on what more we can do to love thy neighbor by making Black lives matter in the research for a vaccine, clinical trials, and leadership in our global response to HIV/AIDS. Between the potential of an mRNA HIV vaccine in our lifetime and President Joe Biden’s nomination of John N. Nkengasong as Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator of the United States Government Activities to Combat HIV/AIDS Globally, we have good reasons to be cautiously optimistic. 


Dr. Nii-Quartelai Quartey

Dr. Nii-Quartelai Quartey is a national affairs contributor for theGrio, Former AARP Senior Advisor & National LGBTQ Liaison, Guest Lecturer for Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology, and Former Senior Policy Advisor to Biden-Harris Campaign.

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