The crash of flight MH17 and the cure for AIDS

HIV virions | Credit: CDC/ A. Harrison; Dr. P. Feorino

HIV virions | Credit: CDC/ A. Harrison; Dr. P. Feorino

It seems beyond doubt that Malaysia Airlines flight 17 (MH17) was intentionally shot down. It’s just not clear by whom.

The loss of life – including Dr. Joep Lange and several other people who were instrumental in HIV research and advocacy – is tragic, made worse by its magnitude.

In the immediate aftermath of the crash, more than one person was quoted in media reports asking, “What if the cure for AIDS was on that plane?”

That question serves to heighten – and at the same time demean – the tragedy.

The crash of MH17 needed neither.

The loss of nearly 300 lives is a tragedy that doesn’t need hyping. And to suggest that someone on the plane had the cure for HIV infection in his or her back pocket takes away from the loss of those lives and shows a lack of understanding of how science works and indeed the nature of international AIDS conferences.

As a journalist, I’ve covered the HIV pandemic since the beginning, in 1981. The growth in knowledge of HIV (from the discovery of the pathogen itself to its pathogenesis) has been a slow, steady accretion of information, with several wrong turns along the way. The development of therapy has following a similar path – one punctuated by false hopes and missteps (does anyone remember suramin?)

At the 1984 news conference, when Dr. Robert Gallo (then a scientist at the U.S. National Cancer Institute) announced that his lab had isolated and characterized the AIDS virus (ignoring the work of virologists at the Pasteur Institute in Paris), then-health secretary Margaret Heckler predicted that a vaccine would be developed within five years.

Thirty years later, there is still no vaccine. And while therapy has improved considerably, there is no cure.

“I’ve been chasing these reservoirs for the last 25 years, and I know this virus has a really uncanny way of hiding itself.”  — Dr. Tony Fauci

The announcement of the apparent “cure” of an infant with the infection has been shown to have been premature and/or a misinterpretation of the concept of “functional cure.” The bottom line: There was no “cure.”

The opening ceremonies of the 2014 international AIDS conference in Melbourne was concluded with a concert by Australian singer Dan Sultan. | Credit: © International AIDS Society/ James Braund

The opening ceremonies of the 2014 international AIDS conference in Melbourne were concluded with a concert by Australian singer Dan Sultan. | Credit: © International AIDS Society/ James Braund

“The case of the Mississippi child indicates that early antiretroviral treatment in this HIV-infected infant did not completely eliminate the reservoir of HIV-infected cells that was established upon infection but may have considerably limited its development and averted the need for antiretroviral medication over a considerable period,” Dr. Tony Fauci said in a news release from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

“It’s obviously disappointing, but I was not surprised,” Dr. Fauci, NIAID director, told the New York Times. “I’ve been chasing these reservoirs for the last 25 years, and I know this virus has a really uncanny way of hiding itself.”

So, a cure is going to take a lot of work by many scientists in different labs — it’s unlikely to be a surprise, fully-fledged “breakthrough” (a word to be wielded with the utmost care in medical journalism) hiding among the hundreds of abstracts at international AIDS conferences or any other scientific confabs, for that matter.

Besides, major developments are rarely unveiled at the biennial international AIDS conferences. The international AIDS conferences are more like American political conventions or pep rallies than typical scientific meetings. They have their own theme songs, branded merchandise, “spontaneous” demonstrations along with some oral and poster presentations in basic science, clinical medicine, social science and advocacy.

The crash of flight MH17 was an unconscionable act that killed 298 people who had nothing to do with the conflict in Ukraine. But a cure for AIDS was not one of the victims.~TM

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One response

  1. Terry excellent piece…I have forwarded it to Stephen and cohort. Adele

    Date: Mon, 21 Jul 2014 14:30:41 +0000 To: adelem@bell.net

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