For this year’s graduating class, the COVID-19 outbreak has meant the cancellation of long-awaited commencement ceremonies.
Quarraisha and Salim Abdool Karim are two of the most respected HIV/AIDS researchers in the world. This year, the wife-and-husband team has also helped shape the world’s response to COVID-19. But it was a more humble setting that sparked their careers in epidemiology more than 30 years ago.
They had met in medical school in their native South Africa before moving to New York City for graduate school. In 1988, shortly after they were married, they took a trip to Mexico, where they met up in a tiny village in the Sierra Madre mountains with a friend, a physician who had written a seminal textbook on health care in remote rural settings.
Outside the village’s health clinic, they saw a man pedaling a bicycle that was mounted on a stand and connected to a power cable. It turned out that a local farmer also doubled as the village’s dentist—a pretty good one, apparently—and volunteers would pedal the bike to power his drill.
“We watched how this community took their destiny in their own hands,” says Salim, “and they had the most amazing dental care from this bicycle powering a drill. It imprinted on us how people can really change their own world.”
It was a powerful lesson about the need for scientists to understand and collaborate with the people they’re trying to help. The experience in that village would shape the rest of their careers, especially when they created a research center in South Africa designed to address two of the biggest problems in HIV/AIDS in Africa.
By the 1990s, the disease was devastating the Abdool Karims’ home country—and still is today. One out of every five people in the world with HIV lives in South Africa. The couple saw two issues that were rarely on the agenda of other HIV experts. One was that young women were bearing a disproportionate burden in the epidemic, and that there was no way to control the epidemic if their needs weren’t addressed. The other was that people living with HIV are at a high risk of contracting and dying from tuberculosis—a link that’s now known as HIV-TB coinfection.
“These were very much our problems in Africa that few others were working on,” says Quarraisha, “and if we waited for solutions from elsewhere, it wasn’t going to come. We had to take the lead.”
In 2001, they brought together a group of researchers they felt could make a bigger impact on HIV and named the group CAPRISA (for the Center for the AIDS Program of Research in South Africa). Today CAPRISA runs three clinics where they provide antiretrovirals to people living with HIV and study new approaches to treating and preventing the disease. It is regarded as one of the world’s most influential AIDS research programs.
CAPRISA is probably best known for a landmark study published in 2010 proving for the first time that a microbicide—a gel that a woman could use before and after sex—can offer some protection from the virus. Scientists had been trying to make effective microbicides for nearly two decades, but the Abdool Karims’ formulation—one that used tenofovir, a drug normally given to people who already had HIV—was the first to offer any protection. Although the field has now moved on from microbicides and is focused on a more effective daily pill instead, the concept is still based on CAPRISA’s microbicide findings.
CAPRISA is as admired for the way it works as for its results. Inspired by the farmer-dentist they met in Mexico, Salim and Quarraisha make it a priority to empower the people they’re trying to help. They work closely with community leaders to make sure their research efforts are informed by realities on the ground and embraced by their neighbors. Here’s the story of one remarkable CAPRISA staff member, Gethwana Mahlase, and the way she represents the program in her community of Vulindlela.
Over the next few years, Quarraisha and Salim hope to build on their study of tenofovir as an HIV preventative. Right now, the best option is a pill you have to take every day, a regimen that can be hard to keep up. So CAPRISA is working on a form of the drug that could protect a woman for as long as a year at a time.
They’re also working on a fascinating approach called “broadly neutralizing antibodies,” which dates back several years. In 2012, they discovered that an HIV-positive woman in one of CAPRISA’s studies had a trait that was, as far as they knew, unique. The antibodies made by her immune system could attack not only the strain of HIV that she had, but also—this was the impressive part—80 percent of the other known strains of HIV from around the world. If they could isolate the cells that made these antibodies, reproduce them, and use them to create antibodies for other people, it would be a game changer.
After years of painstaking work with a number of partners, they were able to create the broadly neutralizing antibodies in a lab and test them in monkeys, with very positive results. Now the antibodies are being studied in humans for safety and, eventually, efficacy. If this approach works, you would need to get an injection just twice a year in order to get protection—a dosage that is far more practical than a daily pill. Success would also point the way toward the ultimate goal of an HIV vaccine.
Unfortunately, much of the Abdool Karims’ attention has been elsewhere this year. Drawing on their experiences from HIV and TB, they are helping guide the COVID-19 response in South Africa and around the world. It is a shame that they haven’t been able to focus on HIV/AIDS, but on the other hand, it is a reminder of how fighting old diseases like HIV helps the world prepare for new ones like COVID-19. Investing long-term in programs like CAPRISA—or work on polio or malaria—not only prevents deaths and disability from specific diseases, it also strengthens the overall field of global health. So when a pandemic comes along, we have a network of experts like Quarraisha and Salim ready to pitch in.
What strikes me about this couple is how upbeat they are, even in the face of devastating diseases like the coronavirus and HIV. Their motto at CAPRISA is, “Each day that you come to work, you should be looking for how today is going to be better than yesterday.” That is a lesson we can all take to heart.