COVID-19 is a terrible scourge that has taken the lives of over one and a half million people across the globe and left hundreds of thousands of survivors with debilitating symptoms that range from heart damage to “brain fog.” In that regard, it is much like HIV.
Of course, there are key differences between the two diseases. COVID-19 is still new; we haven’t yet gotten used to it or the resurgences that continue to send parts of the country back into quarantine.
Meanwhile, after nearly 40 years, HIV has become accepted as a common, if not inevitable occurrence in certain communities; for instance, Black same-gender-loving men, 50% of whom are likely to seroconvert during their lifetimes, and Black women, who account for 58% of seroconversions among women in the U.S.
Another telling difference between the viruses is that there are currently two potential vaccines for COVID-19. One of those candidates is already in use. On Dec. 8, Britain’s National Health Service began delivering shots of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine across the nation. The Food and Drug Administration followed suit on Dec. 11, issuing an emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine so distribution could begin in the U.S.
This speedy progress comes courtesy of Operation Warp Speed, which—since March—has given COVID-19 research the proper funding and priority that it deserves. The project’s goal is to deliver 300 million doses of safe and effective vaccines, with the first doses available by January 2021. To date, outgoing President Trump has invested more than $10 billion in taxpayer money toward this endeavor.
Meanwhile, since its initial diagnosis, and much like the proverbial red-headed bastard stepchild, HIV has been pushed to the side and given inconsistent, piecemeal support. This is why I am jealous of COVID-19.
My entire life, HIV has hung over my head as something I might be punished with if I dared to be my “deviant” self. Because it didn’t affect “normal, God-fearing” people, there was no need to give the “gay virus” priority. Governments around the world followed that rationale in tacit agreement that we were not worth saving.
That’s not to say that no progress has been made in treating and preventing the transmission of HIV, but for all of those advancements, we are still no closer to curing the virus today than we were decades ago. And that has everything to do with money.
In 1985, Reagan committed $126 million toward curing HIV (approximately $307 million in today’s money). Last year, Trump aped that weak investment by committing $291 million toward ending new HIV seroconversions in the U.S. by 2030. He has increased next year’s “End HIV by 2030” budget to $761 million—by cutting billions of dollars from Medicaid, food stamps, Medicare, Social Security, and global HIV programs.
Bear in mind that this additional funding is still $27 million less than the Army Corps of Engineers is paying to replace 83 miles of fences along the Southwestern border.
Compare this with the $1.2 billion of taxpayers’ money that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) paid AstraZenaca to develop a COVID-19 vaccine that has yet to bear fruit. Of course, it is understood that curing a deadly flu-like virus—which is supposed to be impossible—will cost a great deal of money. That’s why HHS has also committed up to $1.95 billion in funds to Pfizer and $1.5 billion to Moderna to develop their investigative vaccine candidates.
For less than $11 per American, two promising vaccines for a global epidemic have been developed. It would seem that if sufficient funding and support are devoted to a problem as soon as it appears, then viable solutions will come to fruition.
HIV has shown what occurs when a major pandemic is allowed to fester. Beyond the incalculable loss of human life, the financial costs balloon beyond all sense of proportion as well. Case in point: The current budget for funding all HIV programs in the U.S. is $28 billion. It cannot be ignored that a significant portion of that money goes toward the operational costs of AIDS service organizations and treatment programs.
So what would happen if we doubled next year’s HIV cure budget? It would still be less than the amount of money that HHS has paid Pfizer for its COVID vaccine; would that make a difference?
Brandon M. Macsata, the CEO of ADAP Advocacy Association—a national nonprofit that promotes the AIDS Drug Assistance Program in order to enhance the lives of people living with HIV—says, “I think it absolutely would make a difference. And I think it's interesting, because all the articles that have been put out about COVID over the last nine months have been, “What can we learn from HIV?”
In this case, the better question is, “What can HIV learn from COVID?” Macsata agrees. “I think it shows what can be done if dollars are invested in public health. Now the shoe can be put on the other foot and say, ‘OK, we did it for a disease that came about as quickly and mysteriously as COVID. Why can’t we do the same for HIV, a disease that’s been around for 30-something years?’”
Some activists called early HIV medications, such as AZT, “Drano in pill form” because of their devastating side effects. Somehow I doubt that we’ll see such complications from any of the coronavirus vaccines, because they have received a proper investment. If we spent as much money on COVID as Trump is on ending HIV, then a cure would be nowhere in sight. From there, we would see the rise of another “HIV, Inc.,” which has made an entire industry out of treating HIV with gradually improving medications.
I remember thinking about the big businesses behind HIV while participating in AIDS Walk New York in 2006. Halfway through the Central Park saunter, I turned to my best friend and said, “So much money has been raised for HIV. Why isn’t there a cure yet?” Fourteen years later, I am astonished that we are so much closer to a cure for COVID-19 than we are for HIV.
I don’t think that it is a government-funded conspiracy; I think the reason is that we’ve grown comfortable with HIV being around. But no one wants to get comfortable with COVID-19.
I certainly don’t want to cozy up to it. Like Black people who are held in prison without the possibility of bail, even as Kyle Rittenhouse walks free, I want equal treatment and access; I want my disease to be as well-funded as the coronavirus is. Black Lives Matter, and HIV Lives should too; at least as much as COVID-19 funding does.
A competitive COVID vaccine costs $4 billion more than the current budget to end HIV by 2030. And that has everything to do with which communities are most disproportionately affected by the bloodborne disease: Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ+. In another sign of systematic racism, Black and Latinx communities are also the most hurt by COVID-19, but because it can also affect and easily infect white people—including the science-mocking president—it gets all of the money that it deserves.
As petty as I am, I don’t wish that things were otherwise. I am cheering for the COVID-19 vaccines to work; not asking that this strain of the coronavirus lose all of its funding. I want people to get back to walking around their neighborhoods without worrying that someone’s sneeze will kill them. I just hope that when this is all over, they will return the kindness and cheer for me—and fight for my cure too.