Putting Ourselves "Out of Business"

The ADVANCE leadership team at a recent meeting in Rwanda. Photo credit: IAVI
The ADVANCE leadership team at a recent meeting in Rwanda.
Photo credit: IAVI
headshot of Margaret McCluskey

Margaret McCluskey, RN, MPH, the Senior Technical Advisor for HIV Vaccine Research in the U.S. Agency for International International Development (USAID) Office of HIV/AIDS (OHA), is an RN and has been working on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in various capacities since 1981.

headshot of Samantha Luffy

Samantha Luffy, MPH, is the Program Analyst for HIV Vaccines and antiretroviral therapy optimization in the Office of HIV/AIDS , Bureau for Global Health at USAID.


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Like many organizations, development agencies have their own vernacular. A common theme for U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) programs is building and strengthening capacity. But what does this really look like? Naturally, it is program-specific, but the general idea is similar to that of a relay race, where the runners pass the baton, and the ones who finish the race are not the ones who started.

Since 2001, the Office of HIV/AIDS (OHA) has supported the search for a vaccine to prevent HIV infection, knowing it will be the ultimate tool to control the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In 2015, USAID canvassed the field, asking what it would take to bring African institutions and investigators closer to the center of the larger search for an AIDS vaccine. It became clearer than ever that true capacity strengthening meant increasing technical involvement, scientific leadership and programmatic decision-making capacity of African scientists, research organizations, communities and governments to accelerate HIV vaccine research and development (R&D).

Last year, OHA made two awards through the HIV Vaccine and Biomedical Prevention Research Project (HVBP) to further the science that will lead to an AIDS vaccine while strengthening the scientific, institutional and individual capacity in biomedical HIV prevention R&D – particularly in Africa where the burden of HIV/AIDS continues to affect too many families, communities and entire economies. Through these projects, led by the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and AVAC, USAID deliberately places special emphasis on enabling African experts to lead the way for the next generation of researchers and advocates who devote themselves to finding a safe and globally-effective HIV vaccine.

Only one year into the new awards, both AVAC and IAVI recently held key programmatic meetings with their partners in Africa. AVAC convened strategic partners that form the Coalition to Accelerate & Support Prevention Research (CASPR) to discuss top-priority issues facing the various communities who look forward to the availability of new tools to prevent HIV infection. It was highly evident that these partners know the issues that concern key communities around biomedical HIV prevention R&D far better than any of us based in Washington, DC, ever could. Historically, this is the very reason that USAID chooses implementing partners who are close to the problems that we are trying to solve together.

IAVI held its first Annual Principal Investigator’s Scientific Meeting under the Accelerating the Development of Vaccines and New Technologies to Combat the AIDS Epidemic (ADVANCE) project, which was attended by Rwanda’s Honorable Minister of Health, Dr. Diane Gashumba, and special guests who are regional experts in HIV vaccinology. The participants presented their own scientific contributions, which included key opportunities for collaboration and synergies between HIV vaccine R&D and emerging/re-emerging infectious diseases. And, a lively discussion to generate recommendations for revitalizing policy, advocacy and communications for HIV vaccine R&D ensued. A particularly promising aspect of the meeting came when the early-career African scientists had their say. These young investigators presented and interpreted their original research in riveting oral presentations on HIV immunology, virology, intriguing epidemiology and advocacy efforts, which was followed by a thought-provoking poster session.

“As most of you know all too well, when you’ve lost members of your family and innumerable friends to AIDS, you bring something different to this work. USAID understands this phenomenon and believes that the scientists gathered here are particularly well poised to contribute to the scientific exploration that will lead to an effective AIDS vaccine.”
– Margaret McCluskey 

It is essential that scientists and advocates who are “living the epidemic” must be fully engaged at all stages of this research. At this meeting, the shift was palpable, wherein the scientists from the African continent, who have been more like passengers in the HIV vaccine field, are now squarely in the driver’s seat and steering HIV vaccine R&D forward.

USAID Administrator Mark Green aspires “to end the need for foreign assistance,” aspiring to ultimately put ourselves out of a job because poverty and disease won’t be issues the world must face any longer. He adds that we know that this day may be far off in some areas. Discovering and rolling out an AIDS vaccine is a perfect example of a long-term but worthwhile endeavor in which USAID has played a key role with the conviction that vaccines save millions of lives globally. In the design of our activities to discover an AIDS vaccine, we encourage our partners to lead, and that is precisely what IAVI and AVAC are doing. It’s one thing to have aspirational capacity building, and it is quite another to actually see it come to fruition as we did at these two meetings. Even more gratifying is the reality that the capacity strengthened by these projects has attracted other donors, local governments and the private sector to invest in these investigators.

OHA strategically works with local research institutions, academia, governments, civil society partners and donors to strengthen the capacity for biomedical research where it matters most. Ultimately, we will leave the field better off for having funded key activities, such as USAID’s commitment to HIV vaccine discovery through the next generation of scientists who are well on their way to doing just that.

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Last updated: November 14, 2017

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