Chorus of Presidents, Rock Stars, and Industry Titans Calls for End to AIDS

George Washington University

Today, two lunchtime diners in downtown Washington, D.C., looked up from their burgers at the television in the corner, saw rock stars Bono and Alicia Keys live on CNN speaking to each other on a stage, and wondered whether this year’s Grammy nominations were being announced. What they didn’t know is that today is World AIDS Day, and Bono and Keys were a few blocks away with President Barack Obama, the head of Coca Cola, members of Congress, chief U.S. government HIV/AIDS scientist Anthony Fauci, and other big names at an event called “The Beginning of the End of AIDS.” Former President George W. Bush and former President Bill Clinton, as well as Tanzania President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, telecom magnate Carlos Slim of Mexico, and singer/songwriter Elton John also joined the 2-hour-long talkfest via video satellite link.

Hosted by ONE and (RED), two organizations that Bono co-founded to help fight HIV/AIDS, the event at George Washington University was a call to arms of sorts. As several of the speakers noted, scientific studies in the past few years have proved the value of potentially powerful new prevention tools. Antiretroviral (ARV) drugs used to treat HIV, one trial proved, can dramatically slow the spread of the virus by reducing the infectiousness of infected people. ARVs can also thwart transmission when taken by uninfected people in what’s known as pre-exposure prophylaxis. And male circumcision can reduce a man’s risk of becoming infected by more than half. “Today is a remarkable day,” Obama said in his speech, which was also broadcast live on YouTube.

As Obama noted, past World AIDS Days mainly tried to wake people up to the devastation and discrimination caused by HIV. “Back in those early years, few could have imagined this day,” Obama said. “Few could have imagined that we’d be talking about the real possibility of an AIDS-free generation. But that’s what we’re talking about. That’s why we are here.”

Obama also committed the U.S. government, which funds the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) that has provided ARVs to 4 million people in other countries, to bumping up its goals for 2013. Instead of keeping the number of people on ARVs the same, as some in Congress have advocated, PEPFAR will aim to enroll 2 million more people in ARV treatment programs over the next 2 years. The audience in the university auditorium rose to its feet and erupted in sustained applause.

Bono, the lead singer of the Irish band U2, said it was an “extraordinary moment” to hear Obama speaking about the possibility of ending the AIDS epidemic. “I’m left thinking if other presidents could make that speech and follow through on those words, we really will see the ends of AIDS,” Bono said. He also praised the U.S. government for how much it has contributed to helping deliver treatment and prevention to the rest of the world. “I’m not an American, so you have to listen to it from me,” Bono said. “Thank you, thank you, thank you to the United States of America. Thank you so much on behalf of all those people you won’t meet.”

Each of the U.S. presidents stressed that, in these difficult economic times, every country and the private sector are going to have to do more to help fund what’s been started and, ideally, to ramp it up. Obama specifically singled out China and said it should become a major donor of aid rather than a recipient. Clinton said more U.S. government aid should go directly to the countries in need rather than to the many organizations based in the United States that receive the funding to provide help overseas. “There’s a lot more money there than people know, and we could make a big difference,” he said.

Clinton also emphasized that the AIDS epidemic is coming back in the United States, particularly among black men who have sex with men, and that state spending on AIDS treatment programs here have been cut. Treatment of an infected person in the U.S. costs an average of $10,000 per year, he noted. In contrast, in developing countries, treatments can cost as little as $120 per year because the major pharmaceutical companies allow the sale of generic versions of the same drugs to help the world’s poor. In a provocative proposal, he suggested a 2-year “emergency period” during which a foundation like the one he runs could give the cheaper generic versions of ARVs to individual states until the economy rebounds. “I’m very worried that the death rate is going to go up in America simply because of the budgetary constraints on the states if we don’t do something like this,” Clinton said.