HIV drugmaker giant Gilead recently announced that, once again, they will be giving big money to grassroots groups combating the HIV epidemic, especially among Black and transgender communities. This time, $3.2 million will go to a variety of groups—including one that works closely on HIV education and prevention with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
The funding is being managed and disbursed through the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). The longstanding, powerful, Washington, D.C.–based LGBTQ advocacy group appears to have made more efforts to reach and serve Black and transgender queer people in recent years. In 2019, HRC named civil-rights attorney Alphonso B. David as its first Black president, and the group recently launched a Transgender Justice Initiative.
In 2018, Gilead launched its COMPASS Initiative, a $100 million, decade-long commitment to groups fighting HIV in the South, especially those serving and/or led by Black people, including the LEAD Academy and the Unity Workshop. And in late 2019, Gilead gave $4.5 million to Black- and Latinx-focused transgender groups, including the Transgender Strategy Center, Destination Tomorrow, Translatinx Network, and Casa Ruby.
This time around, recipients of the funding include Us Helping Us in Washington, D.C. and Maryland; Brotherhood Incorporated in New Orleans; TruEvolution in Riverside, California; Arianna’s Center in Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico; Community Health PIER in Greenville, Mississippi; BU Wellness Network in Indianapolis; and the Legacy Project, a component of the Seattle-based HANC (a coordinator of HIV-related clinical trials), which will bring an HIV prevention and education module to roughly 30 HBCUs in the South.
In a press release, HRC president David said that the new round of funding was meant to combat the fact that “too often, institutional racism and anti-LGBTQ+ bias have been barriers to comprehensive HIV prevention and treatment strategies.”
The grant, he said, will allow HRC “to work directly with community partners, HBCUs, and youth-serving professionals ... to increase awareness of HIV treatment and prevention options in order to reduce health disparities, and combat the discrimination and stigma that too often leads to fatal violence against transgender women of color.”
In the same press release, Gilead chair and CEO Daniel O’Day said, “The grant to HRC builds on our commitment to advance equity in health care, particularly in Black communities and other communities of color that are disproportionately affected by HIV and other diseases.”
On a call with TheBody and an HRC rep, Us Helping Us executive director DeMarc Hickson, Ph.D., said that the new support coming down through HRC would help the agency create new advertising and marketing campaigns, continue to distribute to clients COVID prevention kits including masks and hand sanitizer, and expand its COVID-era tele- and phone-based mental health counseling services. Us Helping Us already received Gilead funding prior to this new funding, as well.
On a separate call, Russell Campbell, who directs the Legacy Project at HANC, said that research done about six years ago showed that there was a strong need for more accurate and up-to-date info about HIV and other sexually transmitted infection prevention and treatment on HBCU campuses. Since 2019, he said, the Legacy Project has developed an education module, “Be the Generation to End the HIV Epidemic,” that allows those who complete it to become educators on their campuses. Once COVID settles down and more travel is possible, the new Gilead money will fund his trips to various HBCUs to promote the module.
The latest Gilead grant comes as the company is in a protracted legal battle with the U.S. government over whether the government actually owns the rights to use Gilead’s HIV drugs Truvada and Descovy for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP HIV prevention). At the heart of the battle is the reality that research and development of the drug came from taxpayer dollars.
The medications, widely used to both treat and prevent HIV, are priced around $2,000 per month (not counting an array of low- and no-cost patient rebates offered by Gilead) and have netted billions of dollars for Gilead.
Activists had long contended that Gilead’s generous grants to community groups serve to both encourage those groups to get people they serve to go on Gilead drugs, and silence them in the face of activist opposition to Gilead’s pricing and patent holds. (It should be pointed out that Gilead is not alone among HIV drugmakers in lavishly funding community initiatives, even if it does so at the highest levels.)
For example, in a 2018 report published on TheBody about Gilead’s COMPASS Initiative, Tim Horn, then at Treatment Action Group but now at NASTAD and also a member of the Fair Pricing Coalition, said: “These philanthropic initiatives [like Gilead’s in the South] stem from the fact that these companies are making money hand over fist due to drug pricing being so exorbitant in the first place. … You tell them that their prices are too high, and they say that it allows them to fund these programs to remove structural barriers to care. But too-high drug prices are a barrier in the first place. So, it’s an endless loop.”
In the same article, Philip Chan, M.D., a Brown University HIV researcher who also heads a large sexually transmitted infection clinic in Providence, Rhode Island, said: “I worry about Gilead’s motivation for doing this. I don’t think it’s out of goodwill. It’s clear ... that it’s all about making money for them. And I worry that it leads to bias among some in the medical community in terms of being beholden to drug companies and prescribing their drugs.”
But this time around, James Krellenstein, a member of PrEP4All—a group that has come after Gilead hard in recent years for their patent holds and their pricing—took a different tack.
“The HRC program that [Gilead] is [funding] is dealing with a very vital, serious problem in HIV today in the U.S., which is the dramatic disparities we see in communities of color—and it’s certainly not our place to critique where an organization gets their funding from,” he said. “If there are specific issues down the line that we disagree with an organization on, we can have that discussion. But when there are such limited resources to deal with such important problems, it doesn’t make sense to critique [community groups taking money from Gilead].”
That said, he added, Gilead’s philanthropy does not erase the issue of its outsize profits on drugs whose uses taxpayer money played a large role in funding.
“They’re the second largest philanthropic funder of HIV/AIDS after the Gates Foundation, but they also make roughly $12 billion a year on just their HIV [drugs],” he said. “They’re only giving away about 1% of their revenue. And the bigger problem that we as a community have to deal with is that relying on philanthropy [as opposed to governments] to deal with immense public health needs is not sustainable.”
Hickson, of Gilead beneficiary Us Helping Us, declined to comment on Gilead’s legal battle with the government over pricing and patents—but pointed out that Gilead was not alone among drugmakers in its philanthropy toward community groups that often are not adequately funded through federal, state, or local government channels.
“That’s been the American way for quite some time,” he said, adding that he would not have been able to connect his low-income clients to PrEP (the HIV prevention regimen, currently available only via Gilead drugs) if it weren’t for Gilead’s charity programs.
Because of them, he said, “We’ve had no instances where clients had absurd out-of-pocket costs. And that allows us to increase access and uptake in underserved communities to address the ongoing HIV epidemic in Black gay and bisexual men.”
[Editor's note: Gilead is an advertising sponsor on TheBody, but our editorial team operates with complete independence; there is no advertiser involvement in the articles we create or the stories we choose to pursue.]