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Sharon Lewin

A case for optimism and what it will take to overcome HIV

Sharon Lewin, Director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, in Melbourne, Australia, shares her vision as she takes the reins as President of the IAS.

We are living through an incredible moment in time. From our perspective as those engaged in the global HIV response, it is easy to take a pessimistic view and fear that the rise of another pandemic has drawn energy and attention from our work.

I like to take a more optimistic view. I think we should focus on the unprecedented investments in public health we have seen across the globe over the past two-plus years. Let us capitalize on the global surge in awareness around infectious diseases and their impact on human rights.

COVID-19 has brought in new investments. And it has brought in new people – deepening our breadth of experts seeking to understand viruses, vaccine design and the human immune system. This new pandemic has expanded our discipline and forged new partnerships.

As a scientist, I am of course excited about what this means for science. Our ambitious goals of a viable cure and vaccine for HIV remain distant on the horizon. Yet, they are closer than ever before. And with our recent experiences with COVID-19, accelerating vaccine and cure research feels not only feasible but inevitable.

There is further cause for optimism. At AIDS 2022, the 24th International AIDS Conference, we heard the stories of two adults in long-term remission from HIV after stopping treatment. And we learned of a new way to interrogate infected cells, inching us closer to finding a biomarker for the elusive HIV reservoir.

Our next step is to significantly strengthen cure and vaccine research on the ground in low- and middle-income countries. Building capability in all dimensions of research, including leadership in clinical trials, will benefit science and accelerate access. We simply must actively support and fund this change. As IAS President, I pledge to continue our commitment to advancing equity in science.

Continuing on the positive note, at AIDS 2022, we also celebrated Botswana for surpassing the UNAIDS 95-95-95 targets, virtually eliminating HIV in a country once listed as the heart of the epidemic. And we discussed game-changing prevention tools, including long-acting injectable PrEP, giving people more options and choices. The evidence is clear: long-acting injectables must be available globally!

Of course, even as an optimist, it is important to recognize that not all progress is equal. Serious challenges from climate change to human rights abuses continue to threaten our movement. As we heard from UNAIDS, HIV rates of decline are not accelerating fast enough, and we are still seeing 1.5 million new infections each year, more than one million cases above global targets for curbing the epidemic.

In recent months, the world’s attention turned to the war in Ukraine and a region of the world our community has long known to be off track. Rates of new infections continue to rise in eastern Europe and central Asia. While we celebrate the steps forward fuelled by science and activism, we know that many countries are moving in the other direction. Our work is not done until every region of the world and every community has access to prevention, treatment and care.

I look forward to IAS 2023, the 12th IAS Conference on HIV Science, taking place next year in Australia. I had the honour of serving as Local Co-Chair at AIDS 2014 in Melbourne, a memory cast in shadow by the 280 lives that were lost on flight MH17; many were IAS Members, including former IAS President Joep Lange.

It felt impossible to hold a productive meeting after such a tragedy, just as the challenges of today can feel insurmountable. But the secret of success of the HIV movement has always been how we come together – diverse communities, diverse disciplines, from all corners of the world.

Together, harnessing the strength, passion and talent of this movement, we will end this epidemic once and for all.

The IAS promotes the use of non-stigmatizing, people-first language. The translations are all automated in the interest of making our content as widely accessible as possible. Regretfully, they may not always adhere to the people-first language of the original version.