As we continue sharing interviews that took place during the World Vaccine Congress in Europe 2022 we are also gearing up for our next event, the World Vaccine and Immunotherapy Congress in San Diego in November 2022. In doing so we are delighted to share some exclusive pre-Congress interviews with the community. The first of these is a call with the Director of the AIDS Division at NIAID in the US. Dr Carl Dieffenbach is a highly regarded researcher and team leader who will speaking about pandemic preparedness and bringing HIV/AIDS to an end. We were delighted to claim some of his time for a quick conversation about these concerns.

What does your role involve?

As head of the HIV/AIDS portfolio Dr Dieffenbach has a lot on his plate across a range of areas. Pandemic preparedness is a huge aspect of his work, and he is really keen to emphasise this at the congress. He believes this involves 3 critical components: “vaccines, therapeutics, as well as diagnostics”. However, there is also a “really important bridge between vaccines and therapeutics, and that is the development of neutralising monoclonal antibodies.” In terms of how this fits into Dr Dieffenbach’s role, he is encouraging an “integrated” approach at NIH. Without giving too much away, he indicated that this was coming together in a “pretty good plan”!



From COVID-19 to future pandemics

As with all of our interviewees, Dr Dieffenbach has a useful insight into how we move forward from COVID-19, particularly with regard to a future threat. We asked about gaps in our preparedness for COVID-19, and how we can address them in time for the next threat. For Dr Dieffenbach, preparedness is about “having programmes to a specific stage where you can respond quickly”. For example, with vaccines, we have to have “good platforms” ready for action. In terms of appropriate drugs, we “should” be able to prepare “family specific inhibitors” that then need only a bit of “tweaking” to be effective.

The example Dr Dieffenbach highlights from COVID-19 is Pfizer’s journey to Paxlovid. They had a SARS-1 drug and “went back into medicinal chemistry” to get the active component. This was done effectively, but thanks to a “lot of work in that medicinal space”. Contrasting COVID-19 with Zika virus, we were only so quick in our response to the former because we had a “tremendous amount of experience with coronaviruses”.



The “forgotten” epidemic

Dr Dieffenbach’s role will bring a valuable insight to the Congress this month. We asked about progress in the HIV/AIDS fight and where we need greater efforts. One thing that Dr Dieffenbach made clear is that he and his team did not drop the ball during COVID-19.

“When people talk about the forgotten epidemic, I the only people that have forgotten about it is the press.”

When a new pandemic arrived, researchers were faced with a “fork in the road”. Their decision was to take both paths. Thus, work on HIV continued at speed whilst “infrastructure” was also shifted to support the development of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics. This was “incredibly successful”, resulting in the trial of CAB-LA, a potential “game-changer”. Contrasting regular pills with less frequent injections, Dr Dieffenbach thinks that progress was made during the pandemic. However, on the “implementation side” and the “healthcare delivery side”, things have “slipped”.

At the Congress, the “Holy Grail” of HIV research will come up, two key issues that Dr Dieffenbach and his colleagues are trying to tackle. The first is the search for a “safe, effective, and durable vaccine”. The second is a cure that can be developed and implemented in such a way that “people don’t have to take medicine everyday”.


Outside threats

Our penultimate question was about health threats that we are currently facing, and will continue to face for the future. For Dr Dieffenbach, these are the nebulous threats of “complacency”, “disinformation“, and the knowing dissemination of “falsehoods”. In COVID-19 we saw this twofold, with anti-vaccine movements but also drug disinformation around hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.

“We’re so fact-based and rule-bound about how we respond that if somebody says something outlandish, it’s like, how do you respond to that?”

Dr Dieffenbach looks back to 1918 and the Spanish Flu. There was a “tremendous amount of that kind of behaviour as well”, suggesting that it is “innate”. However, without the inflammatory effects of social media, it could have less of an immediate and impenetrable hold.



This year’s Congress

Our interview concluded with a reflection on the Congress and why it is important. For Dr Dieffenbach, it is “really important to help us understand where we are” on a range of diseases. It is also about “innovation”, and communication between industry, academia, and innovators.


It was a privilege to speak to Dr Dieffenbach during his busy working day, and we are so excited to hear more from him later this month. If you would like to join us at the Congress, get your tickets here! We will also be focusing on HIV/AIDS at the World Vaccine Congress in Washington next year so do get tickets for that!