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Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been this country’s public guide through the storm of COVID-19, also got his start in the midst of another pandemic: HIV/AIDS, which first appeared in the United States 40 years ago this June.
“I thought it was a fluke,” Fauci, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director since 1984, tells Yahoo Life. “And then one month later, 26 — curiously, all gay — men, otherwise previously well, were presenting not only with the strange pneumonia, but with also an unusual cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma and other opportunistic infections.”
Here Fauci shares the pursuit to find a cure, why we have yet to develop a vaccine, and what's next in the fight to end HIV.
DAVID ARTAVIA: Hello, everyone. I'm David Artavia. And today, I'm chatting with someone who I know you know very, very well. He's the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Dr. Fauci, thank you so much for joining us here at Yahoo today.
ANTHONY FAUCI: My pleasure. It's good to be with you.
DAVID ARTAVIA: You've advised seven presidents on HIV as well as other domestic and global issues. What do you think about when you hear that it's been 40 years?
ANTHONY FAUCI: Well, it's very moving for me because I remember really, quite clearly my first encounter 40 years ago last week, really, when we had the first cases that came out in a MMWR in June of 1981, of five curiously all gay men with a strange pneumonia called pneumocystis. I thought it was a fluke. And then one month later, 26 curiously all gay men otherwise previously well-- who were presenting not only with the strange pneumonia but with also an unusual cancer called Kaposi sarcoma and other opportunistic infections. They made a decision, at that point, that this had to be a new infectious disease. There was nothing else that could explain it.
So I decided to start studying here at the NIH, bringing these men in, who were very, very ill. And I did that right from the late 1981 to the present day. So I have 40 years of this journey that went from profound frustration and pain to the discovery on the part of our Institute, in collaboration with the pharmaceutical companies, drugs that turned out to be totally lifesaving and transforming.
DAVID ARTAVIA: The COVID vaccine was approved in less than a year. And yet it's been, you know, decades since the first case of HIV and we still don't have a vaccine. What are the barriers?
ANTHONY FAUCI: The barriers are the body's inability to make an adequate immune response, even to natural infection, uniquely among viruses. The body does not make a very good immune response against HIV. And the virus figures out ways to evade the body's immune system. It continually mutates. It integrates itself into the genome of cells. So the reason for not getting a vaccine yet for HIV, when, in 11 months, we got a vaccine for COVID-19, is, merely, the nature of the body's capability of responding to those individual viruses.
DAVID ARTAVIA: Conversations about the cure has been open to a lot of criticism, specifically from HIV activists. Some even argue that agencies don't want to find a cure because it would impact their revenue stream. Do you think criticisms like that are fair?
ANTHONY FAUCI: Well, I'm surprised at that. All you need to do is take a look at the therapies that we've gotten for HIV and how we're trying to get therapies that you don't have to give every day. It's not for lack of trying. We've put an extraordinary amount of effort into trying to cure this virus. So I would have to respectfully disagree with the people who say that.
DAVID ARTAVIA: What is something good we can look forward to in terms of the fight against HIV?
ANTHONY FAUCI: Well, we've made spectacular success in therapies and prevention. What we can look forward to are three things, actually. One is to end the epidemic in the United States by 2030. The other things are two scientific things. One of them is to develop a safe and effective vaccine. As difficult as it is, to perhaps use some of the things we learned from the development of a vaccine with COVID-19-- to apply that to HIV. And then thirdly, is to actually find the cure. So we have good drugs to suppress the virus. We want to get rid of that virus so that a person doesn't have to take medications on a daily basis.
DAVID ARTAVIA: Absolutely. Dr. Fauci, thank you. Thank you so much for your time.
ANTHONY FAUCI: It's good to be with you.