Campus News

AIDS pioneer will talk about social, medical ‘imbalance’

Don Francis, one of the first scientists to grasp the devastating potential of the AIDS epidemic, will speak at UGA on March 28 at 6 p.m. in the Chapel as part of the “Global Diseases: Voices from the Vanguard” lecture series. “Deadly Imbalance: Social vs. Medical Value of Preventative Vaccines” is the title of Francis’ talk, which is free and open to the public.

Francis’s efforts to sound the alarm about AIDS and about the public health establishment’s tragically inadequate response were chronicled in the 1987 book, And the Band Played On, which remains the seminal account of the early years of what has become a global pandemic. Randy Shilts’s book was later turned into a movie of the same name.

Francis’s passion for battling infectious diseases has taken him from India to Africa, from Atlanta to San Francisco and from Alaska to Thailand.

“People everywhere cry when they get sick,” says Francis.

Vaccines are public health’s most powerful shield against ­disease, and they have long been Francis’s weapon of choice.

In the early 1970s, Francis joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which teamed with the World Health Organization to defeat smallpox in India, Bangladesh, Sudan and the former Yugoslavia. He battled the cholera epidemic in Nigeria and fought the Ebola virus in Sudan. A Harvard-trained virologist as well as a physician, Francis worked for years on hepatitis viruses and conducted large clinical trials of experimental hepatitis B vaccines in China and the U.S.

Francis retired from the CDC in 1992 and joined an HIV vaccine effort at South San Francisco’s Genentech Inc. In 1995, he and several other Genentech scientists spun off VaxGen, a small company devoted solely to HIV vaccine development. VaxGen became the first company in the world to test the efficacy of a vaccine to prevent AIDS. While much of the testing was done at hospitals and clinics in the U.S., Francis and his colleagues collaborated with researchers in Thailand, Canada and Holland. The story of the world’s large HIV vaccine trial was at the heart of Big Shot: Passion, Politics and the ­Struggle for an AIDS Vaccine, a 2001 book authored by Patricia Thomas, now Knight Chair in Healthand Medical Journalism at Grady ­College.

“Don Francis took AIDS vaccine research into uncharted territory,” Thomas says. “Although this particular vaccine turned out not to protect against HIV infection, completing the trial demonstrates that the logistics of testing an AIDS vaccine are not insurmountable.”

Francis retired from VaxGen in 2004 to establish Global Solutions for Infectious Diseases, dedicated to developing preventative vaccines for AIDS and other diseases for the less developed parts of the world. The mismatch between the medical need for such products and society’s commitment to making them is the subject of his UGA lecture.

“In the U.S., we are fortunate to have the CDC. Even that stellar organization has problems getting support from short-sighted elected officials,” Francis says. “Our government’s ability to tackle global health problems is diminishing. Organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are driving international health efforts in a way that is invaluable.”