A big HIV clinical trial is happening in Seattle, too, enrolling a different population but facing skepticism not unlike what is seen in Africa.

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Drag performer Aleksa Manila, resplendent in a red gown with diaphanous wings, sang while two shirtless young men danced. An exhibit by gay African-American artist Kehinde Wiley, known for his striking portraits of black men, was on view. Men and women, at the Seattle Art Museum for an April event celebrating queer and transgender people of color, chatted over drinks.

It was an ideal recruiting opportunity for the Seattle unit of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network, an international research collaboration headquartered at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. In some ways, it was very different from recent recruiting events in South Africa, set in poor townships, with far less talk of the LGBTQ community — although there are some surprising similarities.

In both places, and elsewhere in Africa and the Americas, the Seattle-based network has helped start a clinical trial that infuses HIV-fighting antibodies through an IV drip.

The quest for a vaccine

From the series:

The participants needed in each region for the antibody mediated prevention studies differ according to the population most at risk. In Africa, where HIV is most prevalent among heterosexuals, women are particularly vulnerable. In the U.S. and Latin America, the rates are highest among men who have sex with men.

So recruiters here, looking for 2,700 men and transgender people who have sex with men, have been hitting gay bars, advertising on hookup sites such as Adam4Adam and attending events likely to draw the right demographic.

Many LGBTQ activists and artists like Manila have embraced the Seattle unit’s research and are helping promote the new trial. While recruiters are often met with enthusiasm, they also see the same kind of skepticism that can be found in Africa.

“A lot of marginalized communities look at these (scientific) institutions as vehicles of exploitation,” explained Ro Yoon, community educator for the Seattle unit. She said they recall the infamous Tuskegee Study of syphilis among African-American men, which began in the 1930s and continued for decades. Those who had the disease were not offered treatment or informed of the study’s true purpose.

Many of the Seattle recruiters are themselves LGBTQ people of color, Yoon said, but they still may face questions, such as: “What do you want from me?” and “Did you run out of white people?” As in Africa, some may think scientists plan to infect participants with HIV.

Because of those sensitivities, Yoon said she instructed recruiter Marielle Saums, who is white, to refrain from a hard sell at the museum event. Instead, Saums, 25, cheerfully gave out pins, some designating people’s pronouns of choice (particularly important for transgender and queer people), others playfully explaining sexual preferences, many containing the web address for the vaccine-trials unit.

“I’ve got condoms, too,” Saums told one group. Their eyes lit up.