President Obama announced on Monday he’s redirecting $100 million at the National Institutes of Health for a new initiative to develop a cure for HIV as part of his vision for an “AIDS-free generation.”
Obama made the announcement when speaking before a group of HIV/AIDS advocates at a White House event observing World AIDS Day in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
“The United States should be at the forefront of new discoveries in how to put HIV into long-term remission without requiting live-long therapies, or better yet, eliminate it completely,” Obama said.
In a fact sheet published after the event, the White House clarified the $100 million would be distributed over the course of three years and would catalyze further research for new therapies to improve outcomes for people with HIV.
Rowena Johnston, amfAR’s vice president and director of research, said in a statement after the event the administration’s efforts to find a cure for HIV would build off previous successes in the past year.
“This year, we saw a series of breakthroughs in HIV cure research that have brought us more clarity than we’ve ever had on the precise steps and tools needed to finally end AIDS,” Johnston said. “We cannot achieve the President’s goal of an AIDS-free generation without continued investment in the research necessary to ultimately help us find a cure for this disease.”
The event was part of the rollout for a new White House report on confronting HIV/AIDS, titled “Improving Outcomes: Accelerating Progress Along the HIV Care Continuum.” The report describes the state of the epidemic, makes recommendations going forward and highlights local successes as well as public-private partnerships.
In his remarks, Obama said significant progress has made in confronting HIV/AIDS since Congress first allocated funds to fight the disease in 1983, but certain communities continue to be affected more than others, including LGBT people and the D.C. area.
“Here in the United States, we need to keep focusing on investments to communities that are still being hit hardest, including gay and bisexual men, African-Americans and Latinos,” Obama said. “We need to keep up the fight in our cities — including Washington, D.C., which in recent years has reduced diagnosed infections by nearly half.”
As Assistant to the President on Domestic Policy Cecilia Munoz pointed out at the start of the event, the Centers for Disease Control has reported gay and bisexual men account for two-thirds of all new HIV infections in the United States.
Obama said after his remarks were over, he would sign into law the PEPFAR Stewardship and Oversight Act of 2013, which reauthorizes and extends funds under the Bush-era President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief to confront HIV/AIDS overseas.
The PEPFAR program, Obama said, has exceeded goals set two years ago to help 6 million people across the globe receive treatment for HIV/AIDS by the end of 2013. As it stands, Obama said the program has helped 6.7 million people receive treatment.
As part of the related effort to maintain the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria, Obama said the United States will contribute $1 for every $2 pledged by other donors over the next three years, up to $5 billion total.
“Don’t leave our money on the table,” Obama said. “It’s been inspiring to see the countries most affected by this disease vastly increase their own contributions to this fight — in some cases, providing more than donor countries do. And that ought to inspire all of us to give more, to do more, so we can save more lives.”
Other accomplishments Obama touted was an end to waiting lists for drugs under the AIDS Drug Assistance Program. Two years after the Department of Health & Human Services announced that Obama directed $35 million to end the wait lists for federal drugs for HIV/AIDS, Obama said wait lists have since been eliminated.
“At one time, the needs was so great that over 9,000 people were on the wait list,” Obama said. “We vowed to get those numbers down, and I’m proud to announce that, as of last week, we have cleared that wait list. We are down to zero.”
Other initiatives Obama mentioned included old accomplishments, such as the lifting of the HIV travel ban, and new efforts, including the signing of the HIV Organ Policy Equity Act, or HOPE Act, which enables HIV-positive people to donate organs to others with the disease.
Additionally, Obama said early next year the United States will host a meeting with worldwide partners — including governments, the Global Fund, U.N.-AIDS, and civil society — to “sit around one table and develop joint HIV prevention and treatment goals for the countries where we and the Global Fund do business.”
“We’ll hold each other accountable, and we’ll continue to work to turn the tide of this epidemic together,” Obama said.
Carl Schmid, deputy director of the AIDS Institute and attendee at the event, praised Obama for the new initiatives, but said more work is necessary, particularly to address the HIV/AIDS infection rate among gay men.
“We are not making progress when it comes to gay men and more must be done,” Schmid said. “We hope that the Administration along with the states and community based organizations follow the Strategy and, as was discussed at the White House today, follow the science and the epidemic, and for the US, that means a greater focus needs to be on gay men.”
A number of high-profile members of the Obama administration were present at the event, including Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett, Director of the Office of National AIDS Policy Grant Colfax, Assistant to the President on Domestic Policy Cecilia Munoz and Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates.
In remarks that followed Obama’s, Kerry compared the international alliances that have formed to confront HIV/AIDS to similar alliances that have effected change at a global level.
“We are the nation that faced down the Soviet Union with the force of our ideals and our alliances, and without resorting to the force of arms,” Kerry said. “Now, no exaggeration, in our own time, in this generation, in our fight against AIDS – yes, in a different way, but no less important – we are able to engage in an initiative that can help define our nation and the global spirit.”
Jarrett maintained the administration is committed to confronting HIV/AIDS both at home and abroad because successful efforts overseas requires attention to the epidemic within U.S. borders.
“HIV remains a priority for the administration, and for the president, both here and abroad,” Jarrett said. “We’re committed to PEPFAR and the Global Fund, and to ongoing implementation of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy because the global response also requires a sustained national response to the epidemic right here at home.”
Also present at the event was HIV/AIDS advocate Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). In an apparent ad-lib from his remarks when he mentioned he would soon sign legislation to continue funding for PEPFAR, Obama recognized excitement from Lee as she applauded and said, “Count on the legislator to applaud legislation.”
After the event, Lee told the Washington Blade she was proud of Obama’s efforts in confronting HIV/AIDS and looks forward to his continued leadership to create a world without the disease.
“I think everything that this administration is doing is leading us to that, and fighting for an AIDS-free generation, and that’s the next step,” Lee said.
Obama concluded his remarks by articulating his vision for an “AIDS-free generation” in which all people can protect themselves from infection and all people with the disease have access to treatment.
“That’s the world I want for my daughters,” Obama said. “That’s the world that all of us want for our families. And if we stay focused, if we keep fighting, and if we honor the memory of those that we’ve lost, if we summon the same courage that they displayed, by insisting on whatever it takes, however long it takes, I believe we’re going to win this fight.”