SEATTLE — DECEMBER, 14, 2021 — While the rapid development of effective vaccines has helped combat the COVID-19 pandemic, key communities – especially people who are living with HIV – remain disproportionately impacted, and are at higher risk of severe disease and death. Finding an effective HIV vaccine is critically important, and to that end, the HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN) is launching an expanded Faith Initiative that will help advance the work of finding a cure.
The national program involves faith ambassadors across the country who will meet and engage with people where they are, focusing on enhancing trust and providing accurate and updated information about HIV and HVTN clinical trials.
More than 20 years ago, when the HVTN was first established, engaging communities in clinical trials through partnerships and collaborations with faith communities has been a focal point in its mission. 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 three other existing clinical trials networks merged to form the COVID-19 Prevention Network (CoVPN) to enroll 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. Reflecting HVTN’s example of the importance of community engagement in HIV clinical research to build 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.
“The faith ambassadors, trusted within their communities and having long-term relationships with the scientists in the research networks, helped bridge gaps that existed by assuring their communities that participation in the clinical trials is the best way to ensure that study results accurately represented the entire population and are effective for all people,” said Rev. Edwin Sanders, Senior Servant at Metropolitan Interdenomenational Church in Nashville, Tennesee, and long time partner of the HVTN, who has served as the centerpiece of the HVTN Faith Initiative over the years.
Under the leadership of Rev. Sanders, the CoVPN Faith Initiative reached millions of people with COVID-19 information and education that helped communities 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 has paved the way for the expansion of the HVTN Faith Initiative that leverages the expertise and community capital of eight diverse and geographically distributed HIV, public health and faith practitioners (ambassadors), who integrate anti-racist, anti-xenophobic, anti-homophobic and good participatory practice principles into a faith framework undergirded by science and stories.
“Through conducting inclusive community education and recruitment efforts to ensure that the most impacted communities are included in COVID-19 clinical trials helped establish effective vaccines that served all of the populations that most needed it,” said Dr. Stephaun Wallace, Director of External Relations, CoVPN/HVTN, at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Dr. Stephaun Wallace, a staff scientist at Fred Hutch, Director of External Relations at the HIV Vaccine Trials Network and COVID-19 Prevention Network and a Clinical Assistant Professor of Global Health at the University of Washington.
UBtheCURE LLC, a Chicago-based consulting company operating at the intersection of faith, health and human rights, will direct the HVTN Faith Initiative under the leadership of CoVPN Faith Ambassador and HVTN partner, Dr. Ulysses Burley III. UBtheCURE will build upon the successful model of the CoVPN Faith Initiative to expand the HVTN Faith Initiative with the overarching purpose of increasing 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 BIPOC communities, which include people of faith.
When asked about the significance of leading this initiative in this moment in history, Burley said, “Faith — much like scientific research — is rooted in the desire for abundant life for all, with healing as a key tenant in every sacred text. 40 years into an HIV epidemic that has claimed 40 million lives, with nearly 40 million people currently living with HIV, even a marginally effective HIV vaccine would prevent millions of new HIV transmissions, saving millions of lives. Therefore, the active pursuit of an effective HIV vaccine that can bring wellness and wholeness to the world is not just theoretical, but it’s theological as well. It only makes sense that the faith community is an active partner in any endeavor to heal the masses, be it through partnerships like the HVTN Faith Initiative, or the CoVPN Faith Initiative. When we commit, not just to the science, but also to the sacred – we can shift the conversation from being just about information, to one that’s about transformation.”
To learn more about the HVTN and its community engagement strategy, visit www.hvtn.org
Anna Altavas is the Communications Manager for the HIV Vaccine Trials Network and COVID-19 Prevention Network.