Health awareness

Dr. Fauci on the HIV/AIDS epidemic: Ending it by 2030 is “doable”

Dr. Anthony Fauci sits down with Merck’s Dr. Julie Gerberding to reflect on early HIV innovations and challenges that still remain in ending the epidemic

June 16, 2021

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Dr. Gerberding and Dr. Fauci

While the world fights the COVID-19 pandemic, another long-established public health crisis continues to claim the lives of thousands of people across the globe: the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

According to Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), approximately 690,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses worldwide in 2020. Although this number remains high, deaths have been reduced by more than 60% since the peak in 2004. This significant achievement in the AIDS response demonstrates years of progress in HIV research and treatment.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), knows first-hand how the development efforts in the prevention and treatment of HIV have saved millions of lives. Fauci was one of the first immunologists involved in early HIV research.

After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly (MMWR) reported the first cases of a strange immune disorder among gay men in June 1981, Fauci’s work became permanently intertwined with HIV research.

“Having been in the infectious disease circles for the previous nine years, I had never seen anything that even remotely resembled this, and I said I’m going to change the direction of my career, and I did,” says Fauci.

Dr. Fauci video

To mark the 40th anniversary of the MMWR publication, Fauci and Merck’s chief patient officer, Dr. Julie Gerberding, joined BIO Digital to discuss four decades of innovation in HIV and discuss the collaboration and investment needed to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Fauci and Gerberding have known each other for years and worked closely during the George W. Bush administration when he was the director of NIAID and Gerberding was the director of the CDC from 2002 to 2009. They were both key contributors to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a global effort to combat HIV that’s been credited with saving millions of lives throughout the developing world.

“His leadership and really being the lead architect of PEPFAR is something that has been a great gift to the world, one of many great gifts to the world coming from his laboratories and his leadership,” Gerberding says.

Julie Gerberding and Anthony Fauci working together

Notable HIV innovations & milestones

In the early 1980s, the average life expectancy following an AIDS or HIV diagnosis was around one to two years.

A major breakthrough in treatment came in 1996 at the 11th International AIDS Conference, which first highlighted the positive effects of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART).

“People who were getting ready to die were all of a sudden starting to feel well again. It was one of the greatest triumphs in clinical medicine and its relationship to basic and clinical research,” Fauci says.

With the advances of antiretroviral therapy (ART), people living with HIV who are diagnosed early and are treated with and stay on ART can keep the virus suppressed and live long, healthy lives. Today, a person living with HIV who starts treatment with ART can have the same life expectancy as an HIV-negative person of the same age.

The unmet medical needs in HIV

Despite the success in HIV treatments, discovering the next generation of therapies for HIV is critical. Scientists say we must address troublesome issues like drug resistance, unwanted side effects, and lifelong adherence – to truly improve patient care.   

Dr. Fauci

To close the gaps that are preventing progress towards ending the AIDS epidemic, UNAIDS has set a new goal to reach 95-95-95 by 2030: to diagnose 95% of people living with HIV, provide ART to 95% of those diagnosed, and suppress the virus in 95% of those on treatment.

“I think the 2030 goal of ending the outbreak, as it is in this country, is a doable goal,” Fauci says.

Partnerships that promote progress

Ending the AIDS epidemic will require commitment and collaborations among community-based organizations, government agencies and research institutions.

“We’re really now at a point where we can count on these partnerships to really be a major vector of opportunity and solutions going forward,” Gerberding says.

For more than 35 years, Merck has been committed to scientific research and discovery in HIV, and we continue to be driven by the conviction that more medical advances are still to come.