Brazilian study ‘cures’ São Paulo man of HIV

. Jul 13, 2020
Brazilian study 'cures' São Paulo man of HIV Photo: Cawee/Shutterstock

With the frantic rush all over the world to develop treatments, vaccines, or perhaps even a cure for Covid-19, it is perhaps easy to overlook the challenges and breakthroughs in medical research beyond the coronavirus. But one study from the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) has made huge progress, potentially paving the way for a cure for HIV.

For the best part of a decade, infectious disease specialist Ricardo Sobhie Diaz has centered his efforts on curing the human immunodeficiency viruses (HIV), known for causing AIDS in human carriers. In one Unifesp study, Mr. Diaz and his colleagues were able to eliminate the virus in one patient, who has now been HIV-negative for over 15 months.

</p> <p>The 34-year-old patient — who has asked to be referred to as the São Paulo Patient, to protect his privacy — was diagnosed with HIV in October 2012 and took antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) for three years until signing up for Unifesp&#8217;s research.</p> <p>The São Paulo Patient was put on a &#8216;reinforced&#8217; treatment of five different ARVs, intended to flush out all traces of HIV from his cell reservoirs. After 48 weeks on this intense regimen, the patient returned to his original medication for three years, before being instructed to stop treatment entirely, in order to verify whether the HIV virus would return.</p> <p>While the other four participants of this study continued to test positive for HIV, the São Paulo Patient showed no traces of the virus in his blood and continues to be free from the infection over 15 months later.</p> <h2>Results taken with a pinch of salt</h2> <p>Scientists around the world have lauded the results as &#8220;remarkable&#8221; and &#8220;exciting&#8221; but have quickly smothered claims that the procedures undergone by the researchers could lead to a cure for HIV.</p> <p>Dr. Monica Gandhi, an <a href="">AIDS specialist</a> at the University of California, San Francisco, told Time magazine that these were &#8220;exciting findings but they&#8217;re very preliminary.&#8221; Indeed, the condition of the São Paulo Patient has yet to be verified by independent labs, neither has the full study been published.</p> <p>Furthermore, Mr. Diaz has himself been reticent about calling the results of his study a potential HIV cure. &#8220;This strategy might not work for everyone,&#8221; he told Science magazine. &#8220;It only worked for one out of the five people in this case.&#8221;</p> <p>The researcher says he has received approval to work on a new study with 60 patients, sponsored by British pharmaceutical company ViiV Healthcare and the Brazilian government.</p> <h2>A history of fighting AIDS in Brazil</h2> <p>Brazil was hit hard by the AIDS epidemic in the second half of 1980s, leading the World Bank to famously predict, in 1990, that the country would have 1,200,000 AIDS infections by the year 2000. This forecast was hugely exaggerated, however, with Brazil only reaching half of that total in 2002, and its response to the disease has been praised worldwide.</p> <p>Early on, the government greatly slashed tariffs on condoms, and regional administrations and NGOs worked hard to share information on HIV prevention and distribute clean needles to intravenous drug users. In 1996, Brazil began giving free ARV treatment to all HIV-positive people in the country via the country&#8217;s public health system. This helped reduce the number of patients with HIV from developing AIDS and thus brought mortality rates down significantly. The Brazilian model of universal ARV treatment has been lauded by the World Health Organization and AIDS NGOs as an example to be followed around the world.</p> <p>This guarantee of free treatment was quickly threatened by the rapidly rising prices of the cocktail of ARVs used to manage HIV. Crucially, however, the country moved to allow domestic laboratories to produce generic equivalents of the necessary ARVs, in a movement led by then-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Health Minister José Serra, which caused much diplomatic stress with the U.S. government — pressured by major pharmaceutical firms that produced the drugs.

Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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