Hot topics at IAS 2021

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By Dr Benjamin Young, Head of the Global Medical Directors, ViiV Healthcare

The Medium is the Message

The International Aids Society (IAS) conference is nearly here. Last year I spoke of the “insanity” of virtual conferencing. A year on, as virtual is now normal, I want to dwell less on what we’ll be missing by not coming together physically, but what we can gain through digital collaboration.

Not everyone in the IAS community could have flown to Germany and stayed for the whole conference. A virtual event can democratise participation in innovation, and reduces inequalities as much as distance, responding with resilience to a changing reality. And so the virtual medium arguably reinforces the message and purpose of the event. Innovating to respond to changing needs. Collaborating to close gaps to access and inclusion. Creating dialogue between diverse stakeholders and communities. Let’s embrace this as we prepare to meet virtually once again.

The year 2021 doesn’t just mark a whole year into one pandemic, but 40 years since the first documented cases of AIDS. We have made extraordinary scientific and social advances during this period. Without the science, millions more children would have been born with HIV. Many millions of years of life would have been lost to people living with HIV (PLHIV), who, with access to testing, care and treatment, can now expect a normal lifespan. Ensuring those years are lived to their fullest, and that science responds to the changing needs of people, remains an important focus of our work today and tomorrow. And it’s why IAS is one of my favourite conferences. Connecting science with policy, practice with people, it is an important catalyst to these outcomes. Improving options to improve lives, together.

ViiV Healthcare colleagues share their stories to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first documented case of AIDS.

Here’s what I’m looking forward to at IAS this year:

Focusing on safety and efficacy

IAS is great for emerging science, but it’s also a chance to share data on therapies already on the market. We can measure their performance, understand what’s working well (or not) and why, and identify any unmet needs which demand further innovations. Not just in terms of molecules and mechanisms of action, but also in real-world contexts. Our Implementation science team at ViiV Healthcare focuses on improving the delivery of care in the often-complicated “real-world,” with the goal of identifying what works best, why it works, and how findings can be applied to improve lives. A need that is particularly important in a world impacted by COVID-19.

A hot topic at IAS in this respect is how we can better serve older PLHIV. Ageing brings other health challenges to deal with alongside the virus, and so it’s important that we develop treatments that work within this context, providing care that is safe as well as effective with minimal intrusion to people’s lives.

Care is always contextual, demanding constant agility and adaptation beyond the therapies advanced in clinical trials. We want to ensure that living with HIV isn’t just about living with a suppressed viral load, but with optimum well-being, mental health and quality of life.

The promise of the pipeline

But, of course, our sights must always be on the road ahead. Anticipating needs, changes and challenges, as much as responding to them in the here and now. IAS is an essential forum to update on what is just over the horizon, providing glimpses of what’s possible in terms of cure, prevention and treatments. It’s about answering these core questions:

What new mechanisms of action are emerging?

What new therapy and product options are being developed?

How can these provide more options and greater flexibility in terms of when and how people living with HIV take their medicine?

We can look forward to seeing what is underway to help decrease the burden of the virus, and of medications, as well as innovations for improving access. The promise of the pipeline one of the most exciting prospects of this year’s IAS.

Towards the ultimate goal

The science, treatment and understanding of HIV and AIDS have changed dramatically over the last 40 years. But one thing has remained constant – the ultimate objective of one day ending the epidemic by finding a cure. Real progress has been made in recent years in how we prevent and treat this virus. Yet there is still a way to go in finding that cure. Despite huge progress in some nations, the year 2020 passed with the global 90-90-90 targets unmet, reminding us that despite advances in medication, policy and practice, we still need to think seriously and act collaboratively and with urgency about what further interventions are needed to reduce the burden of HIV. I for one will be looking out for any data at IAS that points us in this direction by leading us to a cure.

ViiV Healthcare has been involved in fighting the epidemic since the very beginning. We will be there until HIV and AIDS are not. And we will be there at IAS, virtually but no less whole-heartedly, focused on that mission. See you there!