The problem with science is that it’s not very sexy. Research takes time. Results have to be verified, reviewed, and published. It’s therefore not surprising that when a biotech company hypes up a press-release, media outlets that are looking for an eye-catching story can easily jump to an incorrect conclusion.

That’s what’s happened recently in relation to HIV.

Gammora is a new drug from an Israeli biotech firm called Zion Medical. Contrary to numerous media reports, Gammora is not a cure for HIV. Despite its over-enthusiastic claims, ​health experts have concluded​ that Gammora operates pretty much like other antiretroviral drugs already on the market – it can limit viral proliferation, but won’t ‘cure’ infected cells.

“Our ability to treat and prevent HIV has improved astoundingly in recent years, but a cure seems to be as distant as it’s ever been…” explains Matthew Hodson, Executive Director of UK health information organisation ​National AIDS Manual​, or NAM. “Any cure story generates a lot of interest but HIV is a crafty virus, which is why it took us so long to find a treatment that’s effective.”

“While a cure would be welcomed, our priority needs to be addressing the inequity of access to treatment and testing.”

“Misleading press releases and irresponsible reporting on HIV cures are nothing new and remain deeply unhelpful…” adds Greg Owen of UK health charity ​Terrence Higgins Trust​. “For people struggling with their HIV positive status, it raises false hope and can cause emotional and psychological distress. For those of us working in the field, it distracts from what we ought to draw attention to – around the world, only half of people living with HIV have access to lifesaving treatment. While a cure would be welcomed, our priority needs to be addressing the inequity of access to treatment and testing.”

Our experience with HIV has evolved considerably. During the early stages of the pandemic – less than 40 years ago – acquisition of the virus was effectively a death sentence. Today, advances in treatment and prevention mean that we are looking at a completely different landscape.

Although there are parts of the world where HIV infection rates continue to rise, we now have the tools to stem the tide of infection and to minimise the potential harm of HIV. While the profitability considerations of major pharmaceutical firms heavily influence research decisions and the availability of medication in different parts of the world, gay men have been at the forefront of the adoption and embrace of the tools that we now have available.

PrEP – Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis – is medication that can prevent you from acquiring the virus. Alongside this, If you are living with HIV, the available treatments are now effective enough to enable you to keep the virus undetectable and untransmittable. This two-pronged approach is a total game-changer.

The ability to reduce the viral load to levels that are undetectable and untransmittable (often referred to as U=U) is a significant step towards long-term virus suppression. Trials are currently underway to study the most effective combination therapies to prevent the rebound of the virus once you stop taking antiretroviral medication. It’s still early days, but suppressing the virus removes the threat – it may not be a cure, but it would enable us to neutralise the virus.

“​Stories that suggest that a cure for HIV has been found, or is imminent, are deeply irresponsible and potentially damaging…” explains Matthew Hodson, of NAM. “Anything that may discourage someone who is living with the virus from remaining adherent to their treatment could be dangerous.”

Adherence to treatment is essential for minimising new infections. It’s adherence to treatment that reduces the viral load to levels that are undetectable and untransmittable. While continuing to encourage testing and early treatment, we also need to continue to ensure that men who are at risk of acquiring the virus have access to PrEP.

“The pincer movement, created by use of PrEP and increased suppression of the virus among people who have been diagnosed, is leading to some dramatic drops in HIV diagnosis in many cities across Europe…” explains Matthew Hodson of NAM. “Despite the efforts of some to shame others, PrEP is the responsible thing to do if you’re HIV negative and having condomless sex with people who may have HIV. Even without PrEP, if everyone who may have been exposed to the virus got tested, and went on treatment if they tested positive, then we could stop new infections. PrEP and U=U demonstrate that everyone can play a role in reducing new HIV infections, whether you’re HIV negative or living with the virus.”

We don’t need to wait for a new wonder-drug to cure HIV. With the two-pronged approach of PrEP and U=U we have the tools to stop the virus in its tracks.

Gareth Johnson

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