The unsung heroes of the AIDS battle (not to mention the Philadelphia Orchestra)

Of AIDS and the Philadelphia Orchestra

3 minute read
Bono thanked everyone except....
Bono thanked everyone except....
Last week the New York Times published an op-ed piece by the rock musician and philanthropist Bono thanking America for leading the way in the fight to eradicate AIDS. With touching pathos, Bono recognized all those players in his own personal AIDS busting odyssey, from empathetic nurses to "arm twisting" politicians who lobbied Big Pharma to reduce the prices of drug therapies.

Notably absent from Bono's praise and thanks, however, were America's pharmaceutical workers, who a full decade before Bono got involved were staying up late at their microscopes to take the first steps to understand one extremely tough scientific puzzle. Since AIDS attacks a person's immune system, traditional methods of designing a drug to work in concert with it couldn't be used.

I know about this work because, as a senior project engineer in research administration at Merck in the late 1980s, I was present at a few discussions among Merck's chief scientists. Some of these scientists argued that perhaps society's interests might be better served in not pursuing an HIV project. The relatively few individuals who had contracted the disease at the time would die off, they reasoned, and the spread could then be contained, as which point the virus would probably go into a remission state, as viruses do.

No more death sentence

Regardless, the disease did spread and Merck's scientists did decide to pursue the knowledge that ultimately led to a therapy for HIV. Yet everyone seems to love to castigate Big Pharma or at least dwell on its mistakes.

Millions of research dollars and a great deal of effort by large numbers of people in the industry have been expended in the fight against this wily, destructive virus. As a consequence, today a diagnosis of AIDS is no longer a certain death sentence; and while the therapies are still expensive to produce, the knowledge that led to their development may eventually lead to a cure.

To be sure, a whole lot more money effort will be needed to get from where we are today to where we need to be with HIV. So to Bono I would say: Perhaps one place to start would be to acknowledge the efforts of those people who really made this happen.

(For more about Merck's AIDS efforts, click here.)

Reneging on pensions

Which somehow brings me to the Philadelphia Orchestra and its dedicated and insufficiently appreciated musicians. I was shocked to read in the Times last week that the Orchestra management's choice to seek bankruptcy protection not only threatens the pensions of the Philadelphia Orchestra's musicians but also, given their participation in a multi-orchestra pension fund, could affect pensions of musicians in various cities around the country. (To read the article, click here.)

The Times article further reports that a funding plan for the Orchestra that included honoring pensions had been presented to the board but was shot down by the Orchestra's major philanthropies. The board chose the route of bankruptcy instead, in the hope of escaping these pension obligations.

We like to think that when scientists or musicians choose their professions, their first consideration is love of music or science. Certainly there are easier ways to earn a living, given the hours of expensive schooling and practice required for these occupations. But why punish them for that love?

What message does a society send when it fails to acknowledge the contribution of those whose copious efforts seek to serve the greater good?

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