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Leading HIV Scientist Opens Up About Her Fight Against the Virus

Leading HIV Scientist Opens Up About Her Fight Against the Virus

Kundai Chinyenze
Image via YouTube

Kundai Chinyenze leads a global initiative that refuses to stop until a vaccine is found.

Kundai Chinyenze was 16 when her mother was hospitalized in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. Upon being dubbed “the daughter of the woman with AIDS,” she learned for the first time about her mother’s status.

“I was gutted,” she told The Guardian. “All I knew was, ‘you get it, you’re dead. I didn’t understand much else beyond that. I remember crying, looking at my mum’s bed, and thinking, ‘I’m going to be a doctor and I’m going to learn everything I can about HIV.’”

After losing both of her parents to AIDS, Chinyenze did just that. Now 44, she leads a global team in an incentive called Accelerate the Development of Vaccines and New Technologies to Combat the AIDS Epidemic (ADVANCE). This 10-year cooperative is an agreement with the U.S. Agency for International Development through the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

Despite advancements and a few cures, Chinyenze acknowledges the complications in finding a vaccine. “The body itself does not know how to recover from HIV,” she said. “Because you don’t have a human model of recovery, you’re trying to teach the body something it hasn’t figured out how to do naturally.”

Scientists have seen a setback after three failed HIV vaccine trials in Africa and the U.S., but Chinyenze keeps her team motivated with the daily reminders of new infections and deaths.

“To control the epidemic, we need a vaccine,” she said. “That’s what keeps us going.”

In regard to the rapidity of creating a COVID-19 vaccine as compared to one with HIV, she said “It is [frustrating] looking back, wishing that we were working faster, and fewer people would be dying in the meantime,” she said. “Fewer people would be becoming infected. I do think about that.”

Despite the frustration, she said, “If there’s anything we’ve learned, [it’s that] we are faster, and get to solutions faster, when we remove barriers. Science can never be in a vacuum. [We need] scientists to challenge, and feed off each other to come up with the best solutions and find answers to our problems.”

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