The AIDS epidemic in the United States could be ended in the next few years, the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted Wednesday, saying that health officials have all the tools they need to prevent its spread.
Dr. Robert Redfield, a former AIDS researcher who has spent decades treating people infected with HIV, made the remark in an all-hands meeting for CDC staff on his second full day at the Atlanta-based agency. Redfield is the agency’s 18th director.
In making the prediction, Redfeld urged agency staff to pursue “the possible.”
“Ending the AIDS epidemic in America? It’s possible. I think it could be done in the next three to seven years, if we put our mind to it,” he said at the gathering at the agency’s main campus.
Staff from other CDC operations around the country and around the world were invited to dial in to listen to the session. STAT also listened to the event.
Despite decades of work, an effective HIV vaccine remains an elusive target. But Redfield, who worked in the late 1980s and 1990s on an experimental HIV vaccine that did not prove to be protective, said the existing tools for treating HIV and preventing its spread are adequate to stop the U.S. epidemic.
Those tools include condoms, said Redfield, who is known to be a devoted Catholic — “I’ve never been an abstinence-only person” — but also include much broader use of the antiviral drugs that can prevent infection by people at risk of contracting the virus.
Of the 1.2 million Americans at risk of contracting HIV, only about 10 percent to 20 percent are using so-called pre-exposure prophylaxis, he noted. Nearly 40,000 people in the U.S. were diagnosed with HIV in 2016, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
Redfield spent 20 years in the Army Medical Corps, where he was the founding director of the department of retroviral research within the military’s HIV research program. Later he co-founded the University of Maryland’s Institute of Human Virology with Dr. Robert Gallo, one of the discoverers of the human immunodeficiency virus. He also served on the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS from 2005 to 2009.
Redfield choked up at several points during his roughly 45-minute remarks, which were delivered in the format of a fireside chat, with Katherine Lyon-Daniel, the CDC’s associate director of communications, posing questions she said had been submitted.
Those questions did not include a number of controversial matters, including whether Redfield will advocate for the lifting of a congressional ban that prevents CDC scientists from doing research into gun violence.
Still, Redfield hit a number of points that will have earned him favor with his new workforce, including mentioning his strong support for vaccines, and for the importance of making policy that is based on scientific evidence.
“We’re not an opinion organization. We’re a science-based, data-driven organization. That’s why CDC has the credibility around the world that it has,” he said.
Redfield called the devastating opioid epidemic “the public health crisis of our time,” and pledged that CDC would play a key role — along with other agencies in the Health and Human Services Department — in “bringing it to its knees.”
He also called emergency preparedness — protecting “the health of the American public from that which we don’t expect” — the agency’s most important mission. Whether those threats are pandemic influenza — “my biggest fear” — or a new or re-emerging infectious diseases threat or bioterrorism, the CDC must be “100 percent prepared,” Redfield said.
The session was punctuated with laughter, including his response to the final question — would he be supporting Atlanta’s beloved Braves?
“Absolutely,” Redfield insisted. “What do they play? Hockey? Or football?”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the name of the panel Redfield served on from 2005 to 2009 and to the name of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.