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UW researchers reflect on 40 years since first AIDS case

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MADISON (WKOW) -- This weekend marks 40 years since the first clinically reported cases of AIDS.

The deadly disease has brought with it intense social stigma, as scientists have worked to understand it. But there's still no cure.

UW-Madison researchers are playing a role in finding a cure as they work to also study the COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers Dave and Shelby O’Connor spent the last year understanding the virus that shut down the world. But for decades, the husband and wife have worked to understand another deadly virus.

"If HIV was a movie that took 40 years, COVID is a TikTok video where a lot of the same things are unfolding much more quickly," said Dave O'Connor.

They work in the AIDS Vaccine Research Lab at UW-Madison, which recently transformed to analyze the coronavirus.

"We got lucky in many ways with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and that the antibodies that are elicited by the mRNA vaccine approach worked really well against this virus," Shelby O'Connor told 27 News.

"That's not going to be the case for every virus, it's certainly not the case for HIV," Dave said.

Their research is helping to develop new HIV preventions, treatments and eventually a cure. But there are some highly effective preventions and treatments right now.

"If you have HIV and you smoke cigarettes, you're going to be more likely to die of lung cancer due to the cigarette smoking than you are to die of AIDS-related causes. The drugs are that good," Dave said.

Because of the pandemic though, people aren’t getting as many of those prescriptions filled and they aren’t getting tested as much, potentially setting back progress globally in the AIDS fight.

The O'Connors are hoping that changes and that each epidemic informs the other, that we overcome social challenges and inequalities with both HIV and COVID, and that there’s a renewed enthusiasm in public health.

"If we can reinvest in our public health systems, we will be prepared for dealing with HIV for the next 40 years, dealing with COVID for the next 40 years, and dealing with whatever else comes to bear in the next 40 years," Shelby said.

The O'Connors are hoping the US will send more coronavirus vaccines around the world in the next year to help end the pandemic.

They hope the same mistakes that killed millions in countries with few resources during the HIV epidemic won't be repeated.

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Andrew Merica

Reporter/Producer, 27 News

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