By Steven LB Jensen / Daily Maverick

A new global Aids strategy is being developed at the United Nations. This really should be breaking news and the subject of major attention around the world. Unfortunately, it is not. 

“Epidemics are like large signposts,” the German doctor and founder of social medicine Rudolf Virchow wrote in 1848, “[and] form an inseparable part of the cultural history of mankind.” However, the international community appears to have lost an understanding of the enduring significance of the global response to the HIV/Aids epidemic. The signposts for this are nevertheless all around if we care to look. One topical example is the question: How come Covid-19 vaccines were developed relatively quickly? 

As Professor Glenda Gray, the president of the South African Medical Research Council, explained to Daily Maverick on 30 November 2020, it has everything to do with the response to HIV:

“Covid-19, Ebola and Zika [virus] have benefited enormously from all the work that has gone into developing platforms for HIV vaccines, so if we had not invested all this money into HIV, we would not have solutions for Ebola, Zika and SARS-CoV-2. It’s because of those platforms that we’ve been able to nimbly move to the next pathogen.”

In a world where recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic is top of the political agenda and vital for everyone’s future, we would do well to relearn some vital lessons about the nature and transformative potential that the HIV/Aids response has exemplified. This is not only because the Aids crisis will remain serious for the foreseeable future – it is also because the global response to HIV/Aids is one of the only successes the international community has had in the past two decades (even if some may describe this success as relative, given the scale of challenges still before us). We need to learn from and build on success. It is rare these days that we have such an opportunity.