As breaking news hits the world today like a tidal wave, The New York Times reported that scientists have documented a case of HIV as being in long-term remission for the second time ever.
The cure for HIV is possible, investigators confidently told The Times, while they witnessed the virus present as non-existing in their “London patient,” a man who preferred to remain anonymous. Twelve years ago, a patient was cured through the same process of a bone-marrow transplant which was originally intended to cure cancer in both patients, not HIV.
“This will inspire people that cure is not a dream,” said Dr. Annemarie Wensing to The Times. She is a virologist at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands and said that a cure is within reach.
It is unlikely, however, experts said, that bone-marrow transplantation will be considered a viable and repeatable treatment option in the immediate future. While the introduction of immune cells similarly modified to resist HIV succeeded for these two patients, transplants are considered risky and carry harsh side effects that can last for years.
The Times reported that both transplants were unique in that they stemmed from a donor with a mutation in a protein called CCR5 which rests on the surface of certain immune cells. In the mutated version of the protein, HIV can enter the protein cells but cannot latch.
“HIV Is Cured In 2nd Patient, Doctors Report.” @nytimes Such great news for so many. Tremendous progress being made!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 5, 2019
While many, including President Trump, have taken to social media to congratulate scientists and exclaim joy at the latest historic milestone, many have criticized the lack of treatment options for the 39 million people worldwide who are still living the virus.
I’d love if people had the same breathless urgency to report on lack of HIV treatment access & reducing stigma as they do for “cure” stories. I also think the obsession with cure narratives is related to HIV stigma. HIV is only worthy of people’s attention it if fits a narrative.
— Josh Kruger (@JoshKrugerPHL) March 5, 2019
We are a long way off from a cure. While this is a step forward, let’s be clear–treatment and prevention is key. We have the tools today to end HIV once and for all.
We must ensure affordable access to HIV-related care and that programs are targeting those who need them most. https://t.co/wudd4FyFD1
— Human Rights Campaign (@HRC) March 5, 2019
Many who are working in the field of HIV and AIDS treatment and prevention warn that there may be little relevance for those who are currently experiencing life with it.
“It is unrealistic to think that people with HIV could or should undergo risky bone marrow transplant procedures to cure their HIV,” Brandon Cuicchi of ACT UP NY told Out. He went on to say that when patients stick to their medication, that makes the virus undetectable and largely mitigates its effects.
Treatment options like pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, are still widely effective and considered the most desirable preventative measure for individuals who are at substantial risk. The Center for Disease Control states that when PrEP is taken consistently as a daily pill, it has been shown to reduce risk of HIV infection by up to 92 percent.
The problem, however, lies in the fact that preventative and treatment options are often costly and inaccessible to the communities who may need them most. While Truvada, the brand name for PrEP, is available at low to no cost for those who have access to Medicaid or private health insurance, for those who don’t have insurance, it can cost upwards of $20,000 per year.
Groups and organizations like Prep4All Collaboration and Break the Patent are currently working towards pushing federal agencies to dismantle the patent protection on drugs like Truvada in hopes of making these life-saving options accessible to the millions who could benefit from them.