The HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN) conducts HIV vaccine clinical research studies in order to develop a safe and effective vaccine to prevent HIV globally. The success of the HVTN is tied to the study participants and communities around the world who volunteer their time and so much more to support these efforts. Since the beginning of the HVTN more than 20 years ago, a focal point of engaging communities in clinical trials has been partnerships and collaborations with faith communities. Faith leaders have been and continue to serve as trusted voices and sources of support, information, and guidance to their members. As part of the HVTN’s commitment to continue to meet communities where they are, engaging and maintaining relationships with faith communities has been a critical function of the HVTN’s work.
With the emergence of COVID-19, the HVTN and 3 other existing clinical trials networks merged to form the COVID-19 Prevention Network (CoVPN), enrolling thousands of volunteers for large-scale Phase 3 clinical trials testing a variety of investigational vaccines and monoclonal antibodies to protect people from COVID-19. Understanding the Importance of community engagement in vaccine trials and the incredible work of faith leaders building bridges of understanding between faith and HIV science, the CoVPN implemented a robust community engagement strategy that featured a formal Faith Initiative to engage people of faith around COVID-19 education.
In the 12 months since the CoVPN Faith Initiative launched, 7 faith ambassadors who are geographically distributed across the U.S. have established, trained, and enhanced networks of faith and community leaders to conduct COVID-19 educational activities for U.S. communities most impacted by COVID-19, namely Black, LatinX, and Native and Indigenous peoples. The collective efforts of the CoVPN Faith Initiative have reached hundreds of thousands of people across hundreds of events that have helped them move from COVID ignorance to COVID competency; from vaccine hesitancy to vaccine acceptance and accessibility; and from medical mistrust to medical accountability and reconciliation. The success of the CoVPN Faith Initiative shows what can be possible with a similar initiative for HIV, when we make substantial investments in both people and precision medicine. We have an opportunity to leverage this moment when people have never been more aware of viruses, pandemics, vaccine development, and the importance of participating in clinical trials, to establish a formal HIV Vaccine Trials Network Faith Initiative and overarching community engagement strategy to further heal the divide between the science and the sacred. UBtheCURE LLC, a Chicago-based consulting company operating at the intersection of faith, health, and human rights, will direct the establishment of the HVTN Faith Initiative under the leadership of current CoVPN Faith Ambassador, Immunologist, and long-time HVTN partner, Dr. Ulysses Burley III.
Much like the CoVPN Faith Initiative, the HVTN parallel effort will enlist the expertise of as many as 10 diverse and geographically distributed HIV, public health, and faith practitioners to serve as ambassadors, each supported by up to 7 faith consultants who can integrate anti-racist, antixenophobic, anti-homophobic, and good participatory practice principles into a faith framework undergirded by science and stories. Beginning December 1, 2021 (World AIDS Day), faith ambassadors will conduct a minimum of 3 activities per month for 12 months in partnership with the faith consultants identified by the ambassadors.
The short-term goals of the inaugural HVTN Faith Initiative will be to reach 100,000 unique individuals of faith with culturally competent HIV/AIDS education and training, grounded in the context of the social determinants of health (https://www.cdc.gov/ socialdeterminants/about.html). Participants will also be introduced to the HVTN and given access to its wide array of industry leading medical scientists and biomedical research opportunities. In the longterm, the HVTN Faith Initiative will build capacity in faith and community-based organizations for executing qualitative and quantitative research, and establish longstanding partnerships with academia, government, and biomedical institutions for sustainable funding opportunities beyond the initial mandate of the HVTN Faith Initiative. Using an integrated model of Communication for Social Change (see figure 2 on the next page) the HVTN Faith Initiative will redouble the efforts to end HIV as a public health crisis through the innovation of a globally safe and effective HIV vaccine, and a robust, well-resourced HVTN community engagement strategy that features faith as a key factor in educating and sharing information about HIV, COVID-19, and other emerging pandemics, public health crises, and disparities.
The establishment of the HVTN Faith Initiative will help create an environment where people who often have to leave their neighborhoods to access HIV and other health-related services will no longer need to, because we will have equipped houses of worship and community centers all over the country with tools to service their own constituents – possibly with an eventual safe and effective HIV vaccine -- just as we’ve witnessed faith institutions become vaccine distribution centers for COVID-19 throughout the country. We have all the science and medicine we need to eliminate the threat of HIV and other public health crises in this decade; what we need now more than ever, is to treat people and not just disease. The HVTN Faith Initiative proposes a people-first approach to increase awareness, competency, and trust in biomedicine developed in line with the belief across all faiths that life is sacred and therefore must be protected.
The Rev. Edwin Sanders, Senior Servant at Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville, TN has served as a longtime consultant to the HVTN and associated agencies and is the project manager for the COVID-19 Prevention Network Faith Initiative. Dr. Ulysses Burley III has also worked with the HVTN to provide faith communities with accessible biomedical educational in the context of the social determinants of health. UBtheCURE is a consulting company that operates at the intersection of faith, health, and human rights with expertise in HIV/AIDS. The organization specializes in HIV and AIDS awareness, advocacy, and capacity building, but also includes advocacy efforts addressing mass incarceration, LGBTQIA+, gender and racial justice, food security, and peace in the Middle East. UBtheCURE, under the leadership of Dr. Ulysses Burley, has been chosen to serve as the project manager for the HVTN Faith Initiative, building upon the successful model of the CoVPN Faith Initiative. Its overarching purpose will be to increase awareness of the impact of HIV/AIDS in the United States and the prospect of HIV vaccine development, while continuing to address the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and other existing and emerging health challenges that disproportionately impact communities of color, which include people of faith.
Learn more about the Integrated Model of Communication for Social Change.