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INT'L AIDS CONFERENCE: HIV research informing COVID-19 vaccine development
by Emily Reilly

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Journalist Lisa Ling hosted the second season premiere of "The Road to a Vaccine," which was a part of AIDS 2020: The 23rd International AIDS Conference. Panelists discussed how efforts for an HIV vaccine have assisted the current work on a COVID-19 vaccine.

The episode featured speakers such as Laverne Cox, Dr. Macaya Douoguih, Dr. Paul Stoffels, Jennifer Vaughan, Charles Sanchez and Tiko Kerr. Ling took questions from the livestream on Facebook, LinkedIn, J& and Twitter.

The conference began with Stoffels—the chief scientific officer at Johnson & Johnson, and someone who has years of experience working with HIV vaccine development and is currently leading Johnson & Johnson's efforts to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. He talked about the latest developments in a COVID-19 vaccine as well as his personal experience working on an HIV vaccine.

"We learned to work fast because we were saving lives, and in COVID now, we do exactly the same," said Stoffels."We have to work extremely fast to save lives, but the environment is there now on which we can build on what we learned of those last 30 years."

Cox, an actress and advocate for the trans community, spoke next about the parallels that she's observed between the HIV crisis and the current pandemic. She also spoke about how both viruses stigmatize different populations of people and how it affects their mental health.

"In the early days of HIV/AIDS, it was LGBTQ+ community, mainly gay men, who were deeply stigmatized by this," said Cox. "We cannot allow ourselves to stigmatize certain populations in this moment, and stigma is so insanely isolating. It's the sense of being unworthy of love, unworthy of connection, and it's so detrimental to our sense of well-being."

She also spoke about the importance of a government action in testing, tracing and responding to a virus as well as the importance of transgender inclusion in HIV research.

Vaughan and Sanchez, who both live with HIV, spoke in short pre-recorded clips about their experiences.

"The only way to deal with this is through education," said Vaughan. "It starts in the schools, national campaigns, movies, commercials, you name it. Make 'HIV' a household word that isn't taboo and it will reduce stigma."

Ling introduced the next segment called 'vaccines 101' which included the basics of vaccine development from leading scientists. Douoguih, a doctor head of clinical development and medical affairs at Janssen Pharmaceutica, spoke about why the development and why they could move the vaccine timeline up.

"Both our discovery and manufacturing teams have a process they go through, and the steps are sequential, and what they manage to do is some of those sequential steps in parallel without compromising the integrity of the vaccine,"

Douoguih highlighted the technicalities of vaccine trials, the scientific relevance of having diverse studies, and how the company will scale up production to meet the demands of a vaccine.

Kerr, a Canadian visual artist and survivor of HIV, spoke about his experience with HIV medications as well as how his fight with HIV fueled inspiration for his self-portraits.

"In case I was to die of AIDS, I wanted to document what I was going through—that is all a byproduct of my therapies," said Kerr. "So, they're pill bottles, injections with vials and syringes and that sort of thing. In one particular painting, you can see I look very angry, and it was that anger I credit to my survival through those dark days."

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