On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Countries and communities mobilized resources to implement public health response strategies to curb the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the infectious virus that causes COVID-19. Though it is not readily apparent how long COVID-19 will continue to impact people's way of life, the virus has affected the HIV prevention research enterprise. Informed by their relationships with communities and local health authorities, HVTN clinical trial staff began implementing COVID-19 response strategies that are described in the public statements issued by the NIAID-funded HIV Vaccine Trials Network’s (HVTN). One aspect of these strategies included ensuring that HVTN sites were equipped for the critical work of implementing clinical trials while a global pandemic persisted.
A response team was mobilized to procure and have specialized personal protective equipment (PPE) delivered to clinical trial sites conducting HIV vaccine efficacy studies. Leading efforts to navigate complex business processes to deliver the approved and globally sought-after PPE was Yunda Huang, PhD., Principal Staff Scientist at the Fred Hutchinson’s Statistical Center for HIV/AIDS Research & Prevention (SCHARP). “Procuring PPE in such a political and epidemiological climate was simply a non-existent type of job before this pandemic. Although I felt a tremendous responsibility to help, I severely underestimated the complexity of the mission,” Yunda recounted about her experience working to acquire the PPE for sites.
Yunda, a US citizen living in Shanghai, is a lead statistician on clinical trials coordinated by the HVTN. Similar to the HVTN study teams, Yunda found herself in a balancing act – to remain committed to the scientific journey for a safe preventive HIV vaccine while simultaneously supporting clinical trial sites’ response to COVID-19. "The demand took a toll on my sleep time, family time, and "normal" work time, but I feel fortunate that I could help," Huang, who credits her children as her pillars of strength when work pressures escalated, shared.
After numerous global communications, endless negotiations with suppliers, and many hours of reading legal contracts, the approved PPE was delivered to trial sites. "It took only three weeks between the moment the mission was 'assigned' and the moment that first-rate PPE was safely delivered. If that is not a miracle, what is?" Yunda said.
COVID-19 has backed the global community into an unprecedented new normal. Still, the HVTN remains committed to the scientific journey for a safe and globally effective preventive HIV vaccine. Despite significant breakthroughs in HIV prevention and treatment, there are an estimated 5,000 new HIV infections worldwide every day. The need for a biomedical intervention that is accessible and scalable will help curb the impact of HIV/AIDS on communities. This need for an effective HIV vaccine remains, though COVID-19 has become a significant focus of the research enterprise.
Aziel Gangerdine is the HVTN Director of Communications and Stephaun E. Wallace Ph.D. is the HVTN’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Junior Investigator Liaison.