My Lifelong Fight Against Disease:
From Polio and AIDS to COVID-19


1) “What We Learned from AIDS: Lessons from another pandemic for fighting COVID-19,” by William A. Haseltine, Scientific American, October 2020.

Like all viruses, coronaviruses are expert code crackers. SARS-CoV-2 has certainly cracked ours. Think of this virus as an intelligent biological machine continuously running DNA experiments to adapt to the ecological niche it inhabits. This virus has caused a pandemic in large part because it acted on three of our most human vulnerabilities: our biological defenses, our clustering patterns of social behavior and our simmering political divides.

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2) “What AIDS Taught Us About Fighting Pandemics,” by William A. Haseltine. Project Syndicate, May 15, 2020.

Just as it is impossible for us to control tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, our ability to subdue contagious outbreaks is more limited than we like to admit. Despite what we often tell ourselves, we cannot always impose our will upon the natural world.

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3) Valedictory Speech to Human Genome Sciences, by William A. Haseltine, PhD; founder, chairman & chief executive officer. October 2004.

You should all be proud of what we have accomplished. Over the past twelve years together we have created a powerful new discovery tool, anatomic genomics, for converting knowledge of life’s code to new drugs to treat and cure disease. The approach others considered impractical, we proved works.

Scientists around the world are using the tools we pioneered to solve problems as wide ranging as new treatments for cancer, new vaccines and antibiotics to prevent and treat microbial disease, the design of crops that can thrive on marginal lands yet yield healthful foods and the creation of new and environmentally friendly industrial materials, the seeds of a new biological manufacturing era. Through your dedicated efforts you are well on the way to doing what no company to my knowledge has done before—developed a new method to discover drug candidates and used that tool to bring drugs to market. Abthrax is the first such drug. There will be many more.

I leave knowing that Human Genome Sciences is in good hands and that your future is assured. From the beginning I saw my job as creating and shaping the genomics tools you use so well. My intent was to demonstrate by our success that genomics was the key to unlock new generations of medicine to cure the disease of our world. The first phase of our work is done. We know what we have accomplished and the world of science and medicine knows that too.

What now remains is the yeas of dedicated effort needed to navigate the intricacies of bringing our drugs to market. Your future requires skills and knowledge of drug manufacturing and the clinical and regulatory complexities of drug development. Eventually it will also require expertise in managing the every more competitive markets. Those skills are not mine. You will soon be joined by a leader whose talents and years of experience will ensure success.

Many of you have asked me what is next. Discovery innovation and the desire to improve human health is what drives me. Retirement is not for me. Throughout my journey I have been driven by the desire to cure the ill through the use of my mind and energy. My first goal was the desire to apply the fruits of molecular biology to medicine, to look for new and better ways to treat cancer then AIDS.

Over time I came to realize that business plays a central role in the translation of new knowledge to products to treat and cure disease. The biotech companies I created were each designed to address a specific need—a new vaccine, a new drug, a new diagnostic test. With genomics I realized we could do more—bust open the dam that held back medical innovation, the dearth of new targets for drug discovery. Many of you have heard me say that in the early 1990s the entire medical enterprise had only slightly more than two hundred verified targets, by that I mean the genes and proteins with verified medical application. Today, thanks to our approach to genomics, there are hundreds of new targets ushering in a golden age of drug discovery.

I am now thinking about how to tackle what I perceive to be the next major goal in health, assuring that, no matter where they live, no matter what their age, have access to high quality affordable health care. When I look at our country the picture is far from rosy. Yes, some of us do benefit from the best medical care the world has to offer. But, unfortunately, that is not the case for the majority. Many are denied the care and medications they need because of income or geography. Healthcare in the United States today is neither accessible nor affordable for many.

Sad to say it is also not uniform in quality. Even our very best medical institutions often fall below the best in terms of outcomes that matter, reducing death and disability. Other countries do better and at lower cost. The United States now ranks thirty fourth in health outcomes among the world’s countries, well below all other high income countries, just above the middle income countries like the Dominican Republic. This despite the fact that we spend almost twice as much on medical care as do most high income countries. Paying more for less is disgraceful. The ultimate cost is in lives ruined or lost.

I have another worry. I have said we live in a golden age of medical discovery. You have helped usher in that age. What we been able to do is based on the enormous investment and decades of research supported by our government, through the billions spent yearly by the National Institutes of Health and other government research agencies. Such funding is not a given. It must be fought for in Congress each year. We win because the public supports the idea that more and better science means more and better health. Ask yourself, is the public at large, receiving the benefits for which it hopes? Not really, if the access and quality of the healthcare they received is not what is should and could be.

How much longer will our fellow citizens be willing to write the checks, drawn upon their hard earned tax dollars? I fear that if the benefits of our discoveries don’t reach most of the people in this country, not because they don’t exist, but because they are not available due to cost and the structure of our enormously complex health system, then support for biomedical research will wane, budgets will shrink and the golden doors of opportunity for discovery we now enjoy will close. Improving access, affordability, quality and satisfaction in healthcare is an imperative if we are to conti7e our quest for cures and treatments of all disease.

So much for the United States. The picture as we look abroad is even more bleak. Eight of ten people in the world today do not have access to the basic necessities to ensure a long and healthy life for themselves and their families. The primary cause is not that the medicines and vaccines don’t exist, it is that they are not available due to dramatically underperforming health systems. Let me illustrate with one story.

I was on the board of a not for profit that conducted clinical trials in India demonstrating that an antibiotic, puromycin, was an effective cure for visceral leishmaniasis, a debilitating disease transmitted by sand flies, in Bihar, India. Virtually no one benefited from the discovery. The drug was available for free. The problem was a poorly functioning health system that could not deliver the drug to those in need. The lesson from this and many thousands of similar stories that health system strengthening and reform is essential to bring the fruits of modern medicine to the people of the world both in the United States and in most other nations. It is to that goal I will dedicate the next years of my life.

My aim is not to deliver care directly to those in need. We will never solve the world’s health problems by providing care in countries that do not care for their own people. We can help improve the quality, cost and access of care by understanding those health systems that work best, wherever they may be, and by transferring that knowledge to those who are doing their best to improve healthcare both here in the US and in other countries. I intend to create a think tank and advisory group to do just that.

I leave you with some sadness, but with confidence in your future. I promise to keep you up to date with my progress as I try to bring the benefits of your work and the work of scientists and doctors around the world to the many as well as the few.

4) Testimony of William A. Haseltine, PhD, to the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic. February 18, 1988.

It may never prove possible to fully reverse the damage done by the AIDS virus, but it may very well prove possible to prevent the damage from ever occurring. I look forward to the day when diagnosis of infection of HIV is similar to a diagnosis of diabetes—with proper and continual medical care, those infected can look forward to a normal, full term life.

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5) “AIDS: The Darkening Shadow.” Testimony of William A. Haseltine, PhD, before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Appropriations. September 26, 1985.

This is today’s reality: Adequate funds are simply not available to attract the best minds in our country to the problem of AIDS. As the solution to the AIDS problem is likely to require innovative, multidisciplinary approaches, the current situation is intolerable. We have the best biomedical apparatus in the world; much of it is lying idle with respect to the AIDS problem as a result of inadequate funding and shortsighted programmatic efforts.

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© William A. Haseltine, PhD. All Rights Reserved.