Less than five months after taking office in 2021, President Joe Biden released a statement marking the anniversary of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, recognizing when the first AIDS cases were documented on June 5, 1981. In his statement, he recognized the “the tireless dedication of activists, scientific researchers, and medical professionals” who faced “years of neglect, discrimination, fear-mongering, and limited action by government officials and the public.”
In light of that, Biden’s administration also announced their appointment of a new director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, Dr. Harold Phillips.
Just over years ago, doctors noted that five gay men in California – described as “active homosexuals” – had displayed similar, severe symptoms of what appeared to be unusual infections. Although the disease could have been widespread before then, within a year of the discovery, medical professionals would declare an epidemic and name the disease AIDS.
Today, while significant advances have been made in the fight against AIDS and HIV, the epidemic remains.
Biden’s statement acknowledged the sacrifice, struggle, and marginalization that people faced in the fight to combat HIV.
“Five young men in Los Angeles were confirmed as the first known patients stricken with an illness that the world would later come to know as AIDS,” Biden stated.
“In the decades since, more than 700,000 Americans and 32.7 million people worldwide have been lost to AIDS-related illnesses – a heartbreaking human toll that has disproportionately devastated LGBTQ+ communities, communities of color, and underserved and marginalized people around the world,” he said.
Yet, after everything, “America has grown to become a leading force in the fight to end the HIV crisis,” he added.
Biden touted his vision for approaching the epidemic with more rigor and resources than his predecessors, in hopes of remarkably curbing the spread of HIV and deaths from AIDS through an emergency plan for AIDS relief.
“Investing in Public Health” is a key component of Biden’s budget proposal, and the Office of Management and Budget sent a memo to Congress outlining the eventual proposal, which reaffirms that the White House “commits to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic.”
“Despite the progress we’ve made, our work is not yet finished. In honor of all those we have lost and all those living with the virus – and the selfless caregivers, advocates, and loved ones who have helped carry the burden of this crisis – we must rededicate ourselves to reducing HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths,” Biden said.
“We must continue empowering researchers, scientists, and health care providers to ensure equitable access to prevention, care, and treatment in every community – particularly for communities of color and the LGBTQ+ community,” he added.
To lead those efforts, President Biden named Harold Phillips as director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, the first appointment to the office since the Obama administration.
When Trump took over in 2017, his administration did not continue the office nor did he consult with the staff, something that every other administration continued since the creation of the office by President Bill Clinton (D). The National AIDS policy website was taken down and given no direction once the last director, Dr. Amy Lansky, left office right before Trump’s inauguration.
That wasn’t the Trump administration’s only abandonment of the response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Many of the 16 members on the separate Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS had resigned, and Trump then fired the rest with no reason or replacement. His administration would not replace them until 2019.
Phillips previously worked as the Senior Advisor in the Office of Infectious Disease and HIV/AIDS Policy (OIDP), which is under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). He also was Director of the Office of HIV/AIDS Training and Capacity Development (OTCD) at the Health Resources and Service Administration’s (HRSA) HIV/AIDS Bureau.
In an interview with the San Francisco Public Press earlier this year, Phillips talked about strides that continue to be made with the Biden administration at the helm in an effort to stop HIV in its tracks permanently.
“The NIH (National Institutes of Health) is continuing to do work on a cure and a vaccine. It’s been documented and (is) well known that our ability to find the COVID-19 vaccine is a result of decades of HIV research toward a vaccine,” Phillips explained. “Now our research scientists involved in vaccine research for HIV have also learned a lot from that sort of effort. And now they’re turning their attention and refocusing our efforts for an HIV vaccine and also a vaccine cure.
“It’s still hopeful that we can get there, we’re learning so much. Our medications are much better than they were 35 years ago. We’ve come so far. And they’re continuing to work with a lot of the AIDS research that’s going on as well. And there are additional investments on the federal government’s part in that, too.”