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The last in-person International AIDS Conference was held in Amsterdam in 2018. The COVID-19 pandemic forced it into a virtual event in 2020, but this year participants will be meeting face to face.MARCUS ROSE PHOTO COURTESY OF IAS

AIDS 2022, the 24th International AIDS Conference, inspires participants from across the globe to ‘re-engage and follow the science’

For five days this summer an important gathering is taking place in Montreal. AIDS 2022, the 24th International AIDS Conference (IAC), being held July 29 to Aug. 2 in Montreal and virtually, is a unique opportunity to capitalize on the energy of delegates from around the world meeting face to face after the last conference in 2020 had to be hosted virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The full conference requires registration, but the Global Village is open to the general public and information on the Global Village program is available on the conference website,

“We are thrilled to be able to come back together both in person and virtually,” says Dr. Adeeba Kamarulzaman, president of IAS – the International AIDS Society – and professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur. “While fully virtual conferences have become a necessity, attendees always highlight the collaborations cemented over coffee. After two years apart, we all crave re-energization, spontaneity, the exchange of ideas.”

This year’s event will also be about taking what was done during the worldwide COVID-19 response over the past two years – such as people coming together and applying a sense of urgency, committing vast sums of money and working feverishly to roll out vaccines as quickly as possible – and applying similar efforts to HIV research.

“There’s still an AIDS epidemic in Canada, in North America, across the globe,” says Dr. Andrew Zolopa, head of North American Medical Affairs at ViiV Healthcare, a global company that specializes in HIV/AIDS research and treatment and is hosting events at the conference. “People are still getting infected, people are still dying and we still need to make sure that these advances to treatment get to people and the advances being invented get to people. There’s a lot of exciting data around that. So that crucible where the scientists interact with the activists interacting with the pharmaceutical companies like ViiV Healthcare, and with medical doctors that are actually delivering these advances, that’s all when the real magic happens.”

New studies released ahead of the conference demonstrate promising advances in the global HIV response. Speaking at a virtual press conference on Wednesday, authors shared successful results from: a trial of the antibiotic doxycycline to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs); reports of two adults in long-term remission off antiretroviral therapy (ART), including a stem-cell transplant recipient who became the fourth-known case of an adult functionally cured of HIV; a new method using microfluidics to define a biomarker of the HIV reservoir; news of Botswana surpassing global targets to nearly eradicate HIV in that country; and promising results of a treatment regimen for people living with both HIV and hepatitis B.

“A cure remains the Holy Grail of HIV research. We have seen a handful of individual cure cases before and the two presented ahead of the conference provide continued hope for people living with HIV and inspiration for the scientific community,” says Dr. Sharon Lewin, president-elect of the International AIDS Society and director of The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity. “What’s more, we are now seeing an advance in the great challenge of finding a biomarker for the HIV reservoir – a truly exciting development.”

Some of the featured speakers this year include: Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the U.S. National Institutes of Health; Annah Sango, advocacy officer at the Global Network of People Living with HIV, based in Harare; Dr. Linda-Gail Bekker, director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre at the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine at the University of Cape Town and chief executive officer of the Desmond Tutu Health Foundation; and Dr. Thomas Rasmussen, a physician and clinical researcher from Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark.

“When people think about science they often have an image of a lone researcher sitting in his or her lab with test tubes and doing experiments and coming up with great discoveries but in fact science, like many other human endeavours, is a social activity,” Dr. Zolopa says. “And it is advanced and it is perfected by social interaction. That’s best demonstrated at a conference when scientists bring their best data to the conference to discuss, to critique, to debate.”

There is great urgency to refocus attention on HIV and a large gathering such as this year’s International AIDS Conference can help achieve that, says IAS executive director Dr. Birgit Poniatowski. “That’s what people are hungry for, that stimulation you get from not just talking to the people you already know.”

After the emergence of HIV, concerned scientists created the IAS in 1988 to bring together experts from across the world and disciplines to promote a concerted HIV response. Today, the IAS and its members unite scientists, policy makers and activists to galvanize the scientific response, build global solidarity and enhance human dignity for all those living with and affected by HIV.

The first IAC was held in Atlanta in 1985 and was organized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and Emory University. More than 2,000 scientists and public health officials came together to share information on a disease that was just emerging at the time.

The IAS took charge of the International AIDS Conference and brought it to Montreal in 1989. That event turned out to be the catalyst that would make the conference different from any other HIV conference. Three hundred activists occupied the stage and the front rows reserved for diplomats and other VIPs, refusing to move.

Canadian activists were protesting the lack of a federally funded HIV strategy. American activists were denouncing the U.S. entry ban on people living with HIV, as well as the sluggish pace of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) drug approval. And all of the activists were advocating for greater involvement in both clinical research and in the conference, which to date had not included community representatives in its planning.

After some negotiation, the activists left the stage but the tide had turned: All future conferences would incorporate policy debates, protest and activism as well as developing scientific and clinical issues.

The ninth IAC in Vancouver in 1996, attended by 15,000 people, was a pivotal moment in the history of the pandemic. There, researchers revealed successful studies in highly active antiretroviral therapy, which transformed the disease from incurable to something that could be treated as a chronic illness.

At AIDS 2022, being held at the Palais des congrès de Montréal, the theme is “re-engage and follow the science.”

“To the IAS, this means making resources available, closing research gaps, eliminating the stigma that still pervades thinking, policies and, indeed, legislation, and ensuring that access to crucial knowledge and information is made accessible, especially to those most affected by HIV,” Dr. Poniatowski says. AIDS 2022 is a crucial catalyst to realizing those ambitions.

Science is at the core of all IAS conferences, Dr. Poniatowski says. This year, news about long-acting technologies for HIV prevention and treatment, and promising science concerning an HIV cure are expected.

ViiV Healthcare is sponsoring a diverse panel of experts across the HIV community for a series of three 15-minute live-streamed sessions covering key topics. The AIDS 2022 Global Village will be a vibrant space where attendees from all over the world can get together, serving as a hub for networking, booths, art exhibits and live performances.

Last year, the United Nations Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS adopted a new set of targets offering clarity on the wide breadth of policy interventions and investment needed to end the HIV epidemic as a public health threat. This will be a significant topic of discussion this year in Montreal, Dr. Poniatowski and Dr. Kamarulzaman say.

The UN’s 95-95-95 target is ambitious. The declaration calls on countries to ensure that by 2030: 95 per cent of people living with HIV are aware of their HIV status; 95 per cent of people who know their status are getting HIV treatment; and 95 per cent of people on HIV treatment have undetectable viral levels (meaning successful treatment).

Dr. Kamarulzaman says she sees a unique opportunity coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic to push for rapid progress toward accomplishing those targets, in particular getting an effective HIV vaccine and pushing toward a cure.

Two years of COVID-19 and the rapid rise of variants have delayed the world’s progress to end HIV and the facts about the disease are still daunting, despite successful treatment and prevention programs. According to the latest report from UNAIDS, launched in partnership with the conference, while rates of HIV have declined, 150 million new infections occur each year. UNAIDS titled this year’s report “In Danger” noting that the global HIV response is in danger of missing targets and that “courageous action is needed” to right the course.

“What we hope for this conference to do is really highlight that we have a big job to do, to reach the targets we’ve set for ourselves, in terms of bringing an end to the HIV epidemic,” Dr. Kamarulzaman says. “We need to re-engage and implement what we know to scale.”

Dr. Kamarulzaman says many advances made during the COVID-19 pandemic came on the back of decades of HIV research and science, especially with vaccines and diagnostics. Many of those who worked on COVID-19 research worked on HIV research. The world never would have seen highly successful vaccines like we saw with COVID-19 without the investment and collaboration from governments, philanthropies, and the pharmaceutical industry.

Lynn Baxter, head of North America at ViiV Healthcare, points to speed in getting medications out to people, which ViiV Healthcare was still able to accomplish during the peak of COVID. “And back to the science, we’ve been able to continue to bring innovation even though we’ve been in the midst of a pandemic,” she says. “And we’ve had to adapt how we engage with doctors and the community during COVID, adjusting to the different types of requirements that COVID naturally put in place.”

Dr. Kamarulzaman says she doesn’t think the HIV agenda has gone completely off policy makers’ radar. “But we still need to make more noise and remind people that [HIV] is still a pandemic, and that we have the tools already, both treatment and prevention. What’s missing are vaccines and a cure,” she says. “With investment, this is within reach.”

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