A statement from the University of Zimbabwe Students Representative Council caused my heart to sink for a while and to think that Zimbabwe was once known for the best brains in Africa, it would hurt to now think that it could all turn out to be a façade. It was ludicrously unbelievable that the breadbasket of Africa could turn out to be a bread-beggar as evidenced with recent news on shortages of various basic commodities such as maize among others. Sure, just like how the economy which was on the same performing level with that of China and Thailand in terms of GDP per capita in 1985 and now is missing in the global rankings, Zimbabwe’s education may take that route too, its standard recognition is close to being extinct.
A decade ago, industries were complaining that most universities were churning out students who lacked industrial backbone and suffered from knowledge deficiency. Come to think of it, by then, government was still subsidizing these tertiary institutions. Now that the government has put a full stop to that, I guess the country is yet to see the worst; a depreciation in education delivery, depreciation in student performance, depreciation in students’ lifestyles and a depreciation of the country, all because of the money, education has been moved from the centre, and money has taken the place. The institutions do need money, yes! But should it not be proportional to the service rendered?
Depreciation in education delivery will be inevitable at the once sunshine school of the country as the institution seeks to increase the number of students by means of instituting two intakes every year without instituting any adjustment to the staff and facilities at the college. One can only imagine that if a lecturer was attending to 40 students in one class in each stream, he or she had about 120-160 students every year. With the second intake, it means we multiply 120 by two, which gives us 240. Suffice not comment on the numbers, you can surely see the ridiculous mockery and insult to the education system. Is it just about the degree or it is also about the genuine quality of the degree? With time, Zimbabwe’s once recognized degrees in most developed countries will begin to be bogus and mere papers certifying students’ incompetence.
Another issue is the issue of students’ residential area. As we speak, the university of Zimbabwe cannot cater for all students’ accommodation. So where is the new crop of students joining in going to stay? Ordinarily, the general populace in Zimbabwe is broke and lives under $0.30 a day; there will obviously be need for new houses to be built, who will build them? The rich politicians? This reminds me of a concept mastered by a former students leader, Takura Zhangazha, ‘Disaster Capitalism’, a situation where you create a disaster and then you profit/benefit from it. This disaster being created here, from a distance looks so thoughtful, reasonable and absolute but in essence, someone has created an opportunity to loot from the already broke parents sending their children to school.
There has been a shift in dimensions in the policy of privatizing education, starting with the creation of many informal colleges, gradual increase in intakes every year, introduction of multi-campussing and that of annual double intakes pioneered by the Midlands State University. The goalposts have been disoriented and this has justified a nature of not exercising our intelligence in constructing counter proactive strategies other than all these reactionary strategies we are now implementing and are hurting every Zimbabwean. So you mean no one in the aging government foresaw the dwindling of funds and then advised on instigating a counter plan or a fundraising strategy to salvage any shortfalls? You mean all the other universities across the world are dependent on their governments to fund them? What other fundraising projects could be run to make colleges self-sustaining? Just last year, the UZ churned out 3 451 graduates, and you mean none of them had a research that could be pursued and later pay back or generate income for the university. If not, then what function are the colleges serving if they are not academically solving contemporary problems.
For how long has been the UZ since inception churning out students, how many researches have paid back in that big pool of graduates? This is so ridiculous, a lot of people have not been doing their jobs in these varsities other than slouching in their big chairs thinking of the next gimmick to generate and steal from students. What have the universities been investing in? One of the reasons why this country has taken a downward turn is because of the degrees awarded to selfish administrators with little or no brains at all.
This whole drama can be summed up in the words of one particular UZ professor who said the problem with Zimbabwe is that people want economic indigenisation without economic empowerment. There is lack of foresight, sustainable strategies and the ability to think beyond the obvious. The government can continue cutting all they want on staff, increasing the number of intakes and or of students, but this is all cosmetic and reactionary. There is need for winning strategies and genuine people doing their job, otherwise the country is headed for the doldrums; a point of no return…
THE Zimbabwe National Students’ Union (Zinasu) yesterday expressed displeasure at the University of Zimbabwe’s (UZ)decision to introduce two intakes per year, saying this will only pile pressure on scarce facilities at the State university.
Although the demonstration, organised by Zinasu at the UZ campus, flopped yesterday, reportedly due to heavy police presence, the student representative body said they would continue pushing to have the decision rescinded.
“We are defending the quality of education and reputation of our institution. As students, we can’t allow a situation where we will be at the receiving end,” Zinasu spokesperson, Zivai Mhetu said.
“We say no to the introduction of two intakes unless the university does infrastructure development first on key areas such as lecture rooms, hostels and the library.
“Any hurried decision will leave students in a sorry state, where they will be pushed to exchange accommodation for sex with gardeners and maids and other inhumane living conditions that will affect learning.”
But in an interview with NewsDay on Friday, UZ director of information, Daniel Chihombori dismissed claims that the introduction of two intakes was a move by the university to raise funds and fight competition from other universities like Midlands State University.
Chihombori defended the move, saying it was made to reduce the waiting period for university aspirants, as well as giving an opportunity to deserving candidates.
Asked if the university, which has about 4 000 carrying capacity in hostels, will be able to house the students, Chihombori said they would need support from the local communities to arrest the accommodation crisis.
Already surrounding neighbourhoods in Avondale, Mt Pleasant, Pomona and Vainona among others are making a killing renting out accommodation to students and might get more if demand increases.
However, Zinasu said it would continue mobilising it members until the university rectifies the matter.
“The heavy presence of police will not deter us as students and we will continue demonstrating until our plight is heard,” Mhetu said.
Many have been joking that if this happened in Zimbabwe, the state would respond with a heavy hand and there would be casualties.
I believe this is the basis of Mr Alex Magaisa’s argument that Mugabe has strangled the student movement. He is yet to give the second instalment of his article but from the headline I thought it was befitting to respond forthwith.
He says that a cocktail of legislation was crafted to criminalise student politics and also restrict their activities. He is right. Yes the Mugabe government has deployed state machinery ruthlessly to deal with student dissent.
Students were beaten up, expelled and arrested. Is this what has strangled student politics? This is a simplistic view at best as we have seen students protesting in more harsh environments.
We have already seen that the South African government can react ruthlessly to dissent when police opened fired and killed miners in the Marikana incident. All governments normally react ruthlessly when faced with a formidable challenge. Zimbabwe is no exception. With the Marikana example, South African students could have thought twice about any protests and yet they came out in their numbers to confront the system.
What this shows is that no amount of state machinery can intimidate or stop a well drilled conscious student movement. Students can still come out to protest if there is a cause and if they are organised.
Much of the legislation that was invoked by the state in Zimbabwe to suppress student politics existed in the colonial state and yet students during the late 1980s and 1990s successfully took on the Mugabe government on many issues. These students confronted the state despite facing genuine threats from the state then.
The likes of Arthur Mutambara, Tendai Biti and Takura Zhangazha operated under equally dangerous conditions with the state determined to silence its opponents. I remember my own brother would always come back home and narrate ordeals of police brutality during student demonstrations. The state has always been heavy handed on dissent but students defied these restrictions and went toe to toe with the government.
I remember vividly hearing stories of helicopters being deployed at the University of Zimbabwe to quell disturbances there. Dumiso Dabengwa then Home Affairs Minister would deploy armed police to deal with students at the University of Zimbabwe.
So what changed? We have often not spoken about the disempowering effect of donor money and the meddlesome opposition politicians who sought to make civil society subservient to them in their quest for political power.
The emergence of the Movement for Democratic Change and its ‘annexation’ of the student movement and labour movement through the help of donor money was the beginning of the end for student politics.
What started as a political alliance ended up as a relationship of ‘master and servant ‘with the opposition MDC completely dominating civic groups and controlling the political agenda.
Once the student leaders aligned themselves openly with the opposition MDC, it gave the ruling party the perfect excuse to curtail student politics.
Of course in any democratic country, people are free to align themselves with political parties of their choice without fear of retribution but once the students took sides they were treated as political opponents rather than a civic society grouping.
South African students on the other hand asked Democratic Alliance president, Mmusi Maimane to respectfully leave when they were conducting their demonstrations.
This was an unequivocal message to political parties that student protests were non-partisan and students did not appreciate their struggle being hijacked by political parties for political expediency.
But in Zimbabwe students openly took political sides and participated in the ‘Mugabe must go’ political agenda. Now in South Africa president Zuma stands accused of corruption and many other things but students have stayed out of this debate and allowed politicians to fight it out themselves. Once the Mugabe must go discourse had fizzled out so did the student movements.
Many student leaders sold the soul of the student movement to politicians particularly those in opposition politics. What followed is that student politics lost its credibility and therefore ability to mobilise students of different political persuasions on common matters.
Now Zimbabwean students have been reduced to rebels without a cause save for a successful demonstration they conducted early this year when students had been evicted from University accommodation.
At some point the Tsvangirai led MDC stood accused of sponsoring division in the Zimbabwe National Association of Students Unions (ZINASU). Even up to now there are two ZINASU’s with one loyal to Tendai Biti’s PDP and the other to Tsvangirai’s MDC. There is also ZICOSU which is loyal to ZANU PF.
Such is the sad case of students’ politics that students have been apportioned to different political groupings and are therefore not united.
In 2010 for example, ZINASU split on the basis of whether to participate in constitutional making process or not. The MDC was basically pushing the constitution making agenda along with ZANU PF. The group that had Morgan Tsvangirai’s backing led by Brilliant Dube eventually prevailed at the expense of the group led by Clever Bere which was against participating in the constitution making process.
Those who were familiar with the goings on in civil society at that time talk of huge perks for student leaders and how money exchanged hands. The MDC was heavily funded and had resources to influence proceedings in civil society. With their money they ‘bought and corrupted’ student leaders. Ultimately the opposition party took control of student politics and silenced the voices of the students.
While it was seen as a strategic move and a victory back then, events now show that the victory was hollow as it had the effect of disempowering the student movement in many ways. I have already mentioned that once it openly aligned itself with partisan political interests, the student movement compromised its own legitimacy and credibility.
Secondly by meddling in partisan political warfare the student movement became a political foe of the ruling party and was therefore treated as such. Politics tends to get dirty especially when power is at stake. Students asked for it when they openly sided with political players.
For many student leaders who came after the militant Mutambaras, student politics was viewed as a spring board for entering mainstream politics. One just needs to look at the number of former student leaders who now occupy senior positions in the various opposition political parties. Neutral students saw this and they could no longer be used as springboards to launch political careers by some individuals.
Collective action was futile especially when it was clear to all that most of the student leaders were in pursuit of their own individual political interests. Students were demanding that Mugabe must go instead of articulating their own issues. It was clear that the student movement had seized to represent the primary interests of ordinary students.
It was therefore Tsvangirai’s attempt to capture the student movement that strangled student politics not President Mugabe as claimed by Magaisa.
Tsvangirai through use of donor money compromised and corrupted the student movement and therefore silenced it. I don’t know if this was done intentionally or not but the effects are now all too clear for all of us to see.
While state brutality is responsible for student apathy, many students are no longer interested in student politics because it is evident that student politics does not talk to their everyday issues. It is not too late for students to get back to basics but first and foremost they must free themselves from political control by the various political parties that are competing for political space in the country.
The political parties must also come to a realisation that it is not prudent to control civic groups such as student groups. These are best left to determine their own agendas. Smart political parties especially those in the opposition know that they must not control civil society. They just need to be strategic enough to be able to ride on and harness social discontent.
Students have been demobilised and have become disorganised. It is time to go back to the drawing board.
People who don’t read their history are bound to forget it or to repeat its mistakes. They also tend to be overawed by events elsewhere, believing them to be new, when in fact, they are not.
The latter, especially, has been apparent in the last couple of weeks as events at universities around South Africa have unfolded, in what history will record as the #FeesMustFall students’ protests. The students’ movement in South Africa succeeded as their Government caved in to their demands to stop the increase in university fees. This has generated a lot of excitement, and for some, comparisons with events in Zimbabwe.
A number of Zimbabweans, many of a generation too young to remember events in our own country barely 25 years ago, have looked at what happened in South Africa, and asked why Zimbabweans have not been able to do the same, in the face of their own, even more serious challenges. Some in the media have even referred to it as ‘Protest Envy’, among Zimbabweans, suggesting how we, Zimbabweans, must feel seeing that our neighbours south of the Limpopo have the freedom to protest and achieve results in the manner they did. We must be envious, that they can do that, the thinking goes. Forgotten in all this is that we have been there before. We know that road too well.
As these events unfolded, I was reminded of a conversation I had back in 1998, 17 years ago, with a group of South African students. They had visited Zimbabwe for a conference of Southern African students’ unions, hosted by Zinasu, the national students’ movement body in Zimbabwe. I had already left the University of Zimbabwe the year before but Zinasu invited me to come and talk about free speech and academic freedom. Learnmore Jongwe, then the leader of Zinasu was a friend and I was happy to oblige.
At the time, our own students’ unions were very vibrant and active. They were facing similar challenges regarding university fees and students’ support and welfare which had been progressively eroded since the early 1990s. The decade since 1988 had witnessed numerous students’ protests, first at the UZ and later at NUST, the other university and various colleges.
I ended my speech with a warning to students from other countries, especially South Africa, that they had to remain vigilant, in order to avoid the path that Zimbabwe had taken. I advised against complacency in the euphoria of independence, which at the time, seemed to be encapsulated by the notion of the “Rainbow Nation”, which was then quite fashionable. One of the South African students responded, with a swagger in his voice that betrayed a slight hint of arrogance. “It won’t happen in South Africa,” he declared, before adding, “In South Africa, we are not like that. We have a democratic government and a robust constitution”. His compatriots nodded in approval. South Africa was different, the young men and women believed. I had a chuckle and said time would tell.
I have never forgotten that encounter at the humble abode of the YMCA in Kambuzuma, a busy suburb in western Harare, where the conference was being held. After Marikana, I thought about it. And in recent weeks, I have thought about it, too, as the students’ protests spread across campuses. Was it new? No. Was it unique? Again, no. At least in historical terms. It’s a pity I may never meet that group of students again, but it would be interesting to have an audit discussion over how South Africa has fared since that conference.
The point here is not to relegate the significance of the events in South Africa, but it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. If it sounds new, it is because people don’t read or choose not to remember history, or if they do, to so selectively. All across Africa, after a few years of post-independence euphoria, people have eventually woken up to the harsh realities of the system under which they are governed. Oft-times, it begins with students at universities and colleges. And there are good reasons why those places are brewing pots of initial challenges to the system.
There, at universities and colleges, there is a mass concentration of young, intelligent and open-minded people and their instructors, operating under the protective umbrella of academic freedom. They are engaged in the pursuit of knowledge. These intellectual enquiries introduce them to new ways of thinking, and to past struggles for liberty, equality and fairness. These ideas have huge appeal among the young and ambitious minds. Indeed, the young men and women begin to identify themselves with heroic figures from the past. They discover the great Che Guevara, Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Frantz Fanon, Karl Marx and many more of the great figures from the past. The stories of these men and women, and their philosophies are hugely inspiring. Some even adopt their names, and for a few, it is by those monikers that society will forever remember them.
In a nutshell, the young men and women at universities and colleges begin to see the bigger picture, far beyond their enclaves, the little villages and towns in which they grew up. They begin to see the inequalities and injustices of the system, both at the national and international levels and they are outraged by what they learn. They are no longer just adding figures or constructing sentences but learning the ways of the world. In short, they make an important discovery of their historic role in society and begin to call themselves the “Voice of the Voiceless”, often wearing apparel declaring the same.
They form societies to challenge these undesirable aspects of the world. In all this, the students union has a central role. It is the rallying point for all students and societies. The students own it. They claim territorial sovereignty over this space, which they guard jealously from the authorities of the university and the State. It is a key part of university and college life, indeed a key institution in the governance structure of the university and college administration. But by its very nature and its role, it becomes a point of interest to authorities, who begin to see it as a threat. And for that reason, it has to be monitored, indeed, it must be subdued.
The students are often the first in society to see that there is something wrong with the national governance system. They are in the business of reading and reading gives them awareness and knowledge of what is happening in society. They have the energy, zeal and exuberance of youth, which often manifests as bravery and fearlessness. And so, they lead from the front, usually first in matters of self-interest, such as fees and welfare, and then when they discover the power of protest, they begin to grapple with matters of general interest to society – human rights, democracy, anti-corruption, solidarity with workers, etc. Actually, in Zimbabwe, it was the other way round, as they began with matters of public interest – corruption, anti-one-party state – in the late 1980s, before they were seized with matters of self-interest – academic freedom, fees, accommodation, students’ welfare.
The irony is that in all this time, the rest of the population might even regard the students as a nuisance, as a bunch of spoilt young people who are not grateful for what they are getting, things like access to higher education which the colonial system restricted from them. The nascent black middle-class, which is not yet fully developed but aspiring for more wealth and status, is especially the most threatened. They have recently joined the propertied class and they are protective of their possessions from these university ‘hooligans’ as the state and its media calls them. This friction between students and middle-class society is not helped by the fact that in their zealous approach, which is often in excess, they engage in destructive conduct – stoning and burning cars, houses and buildings, and generally displaying behaviour of a rowdy character.
Those in government, who increasingly regard themselves more exclusively as the sole liberators of the nation, are less amused, too. They might even curse students for not being grateful of the freedom they enjoy, a freedom which they, the liberators painstakingly delivered. Some in government begin to mull ways of teaching the young people a lesson. Those in security and intelligence begin to characterise students as a threat to national security. In time, the instruments of state security are unleashed upon the students.
At the same time, as we shall see in the case of Zimbabwe, the State begins to craft legislation that is designed to progressively weaken the students’ movement. And when the rest of society finally wakes up to the realities unleashed by their government and joins the students, the scene is set for bitter clashes with the ruling establishment. The ruling establishment will drop all pretences of democracy and morph into a brutal force. For legitimacy, it grounds its actions upon defence of liberation and sovereignty and re-brands students, civil society and the opposition as agents of Western imperialism. It restates a commitment to fighting neo-colonialism and therefore, doing all that is necessary to defeat the enemy. It re-discovers its mission as an agent of social justice and begins an attack on the institution of private property on the basis that it is pursuing the historic mission of redistribution.
What I have described above reflects in broad terms what happened in Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, in particular, the relationship between the State, society and the students’ movement. Many people observing the #FeesMustFall protests around South African universities have been asking why Zimbabwean students and Zimbabweans generally are unable to do what the South African students have done. They probably don’t remember that we were there long before these events. We even had a pub at the students’ union at the UZ, October 4 was its name, so-named in honour of an historic day in the history of the students’ movement in Zimbabwe. It happened on 4th October 1989, when the UZ was shut down for the first time since independence, following demonstrations and clashes with police who had been deployed to thwart students’ protests. I shall describe in more detail the circumstances around October 4 in Part 2 of this series.
It is against this general background, that one must understand how, over the years, the Mugabe Government managed to strangle the students’ movement in Zimbabwe. In the next part, I will look in more detail at the ways in which the power of the students’ movement was progressively diluted using a multi-faceted set of strategies and tactics to the point where now, the students’ movement is generally weak and ineffectual. Then perhaps, it might become more apparent why a #FeesMustFall-type of protest is almost impossible in today’s Zimbabwe, but more importantly, why the apparent success of the South African students’ movement on this occasion must be read with caution. They have lessons to learn from their neighbours north of the Limpopo, and indeed, across the rest of Africa. And no, as many will discover, South Africa is not very different from the rest of us.
The bodies of young men arrived in the morgue of Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital emaciated, displaying the ravages of a phenomenon that had only recently been named.
Blood-filled red and purple lesions riddled the corpses’ skin. Creamy white patches of oral thrush covered their mouths and throats. Louis Picker, in 1982 a 26-year-old pathology resident, suited up with full-body protective layers over his scrubs to perform the autopsies. Inside these bodies, the doctor found organs invaded by tumors and lungs heavy with infection.
“Everybody suspected it was some sort of virus, and that it was catching,” Picker recalls, “but nobody knew what it was.” Some had called it GRID—“gay-related immune deficiency”—because rare diseases, brought on by failing immune systems, suddenly seemed to cluster in the nation’s gay communities. The name that stuck, “acquired immune deficiency syndrome,” was coined that same year. Picker had come to Boston fresh out of medical school at the University of California–San Francisco. As the young med student completed his studies, a skin cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma and a pneumonia caused by a fungus emerged in San Francisco’s gay community, both related to the collapse of sufferers’ immune systems. “For the most part, it was uniformly fatal, and there was quite a bit of hysteria,” Picker says.
Early in his training, Picker was drawn to the study of the immune system—“a complicated, finely tuned dance that came about by evolution,” as he puts it—and how it keeps us alive in a sea of pathogens. AIDS, which robs otherwise healthy adults of these natural defenses, fascinated him. “Here was a disease of the immune system that appeared right in front of my eyes when I was trying to figure out what to do in life,” he says.
In 1985, Picker published his first paper on AIDS and its cause, which had been discovered not long before: human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. He spent the next decade investigating how T cells, the soldiers of the immune system (and HIV’s target) operate in the body. Every so often he would hear that a former classmate from San Francisco had died of the disease.
In fact, the career of the Los Angeles native entwines with the history of one of the planet’s most lethal infectious killers. Since the days when Picker would scrub down after autopsying Boston’s first AIDS victims, billions of dollars and countless hours have been invested in research, while an estimated 39 million people have died from AIDS-related causes globally. Like the rhapsody of immune cells that work together to fight off infection, scientists around the world have worked for decades to solve the many riddles of HIV and AIDS. Picker is just one character in a worldwide epic. But right now, he and his research team at Portland’s Oregon Health & Science University believe they’re onto something big.
On a recent afternoon Picker, 59, sat in a sun-drenched conference room at OHSU’s West Campus in Beaverton, home to his 26-staffer lab and the rhesus macaques on which their work depends. The immunologist, dressed in his characteristic black jeans and button-down shirt, sounded confident but far from nonchalant as he explained his ambitious vision of a vaccine to prevent and cure AIDS: “I think within 15 years we’ll have both.”
No one would have made this claim a decade ago. AIDS vaccine research has been riddled with setbacks. (In 1984, when US Secretary of Health and Human Services Margaret Heckler announced that researchers at the National Cancer Institute had identified HIV, then called HTLV-III, she expressed hope for a vaccine within two years.) Meanwhile, a major effort for a full-fledged cure—a therapy that would rid the infected of the virus—never really got off the ground, hampered by a lack of critical scientific understanding and funding, and perhaps rendered less urgent by the development of antiretroviral drug therapy that has allowed many people with HIV to live longer. In 1994, AIDS was the leading cause of death for all Americans aged 25 to 44. Today, because of the antiretroviral therapies, many Americans have come to regard AIDS as a chronic illness instead of a death sentence. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in September that about half of the 1.2 million HIV-positive American adults don’t take antiretrovirals, and more than 14,000 Americans with AIDS still die every year.
“The AIDS vaccine field has been kind of a disaster,” says Guido Silvestri, chief division officerof microbiology and immunology at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. “There has been a huge investment of funds, and very little to show so far.”
HIV does present some particular challenges. Vaccines typically train the immune system to attack specific targets, or antigens. But HIV mutates constantly, even within one infected person: the target never stops moving.
“It’s not like influenza, where we can get a different shot ever year and be pretty close to what is circulating,” says Wayne Koff, chief scientific officer of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. In the 31 years since HIV was first identified, only four potential vaccines have advanced to human trials. Three of them failed outright—and may have even increased infection rates. Then a large trial in Thailand dealt a surprise: 32 percent efficacy against HIV infection. The results, published in 2009, weren’t good enough to bring that vaccine to market, but they reenergized vaccine research.
Around the same time, the case of Timothy Brown, an HIV-positive Seattle-born man living in Germany, jolted to life the stalled research for a cure. Two bone marrow transplants for leukemia eliminated HIV in the now-famous Berlin Patient. (Brown’s doctor found a donor with two copies of a rare genetic mutation that produces resistance to HIV.) Brown went off his AIDS drugs after his first transplant; eight years later, he’s still HIV-free. But a bone marrow transplant—an invasive, dangerous, and expensive last resort for a person who will otherwise die from cancer—isn’t a realistic option for most of the world’s millions of HIV-positive people. “It’s an experiment, not a solution,” Koff says.
Still, the scientific community took notice. The biggest impediment to a cure is that once a person is infected, a reservoir of HIV always lies dormant in the body. Because it’s not active, this stealth infection is invisible to both the immune system and AIDS drugs. Periodically, some of this latent virus reactivates. Antiretroviral drugs, which first came on the market in 1987, can then fend off these attacks, but take an HIV-positive person off the pills, and the infection will come roaring back. If latent HIV can be wiped out, one way or another—as clearly happened in Brown’s case—it means that the virus isn’t as invincible as it has seemed.
By the mid-’90s, Picker worked at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. An infectious agent in the herpes family called cytomegalovirus (CMV) caught his attention as a potential factor in HIV research. CMV is widespread—an estimated 50 percent of people in the developed world will contract CMV by the time they’re 40, and it’s ubiquitous in the developing world. For the vast majority of us, it’s basically harmless. Once a person is infected, CMV stays in the body for life. And—critically—it sparks an enormous immune system response that never stops: in most people with CMV, the body devotes a full 10 percent of its T cells to fighting it. “CMV was different from just about everything else,” Picker says.
All vaccines mimic an infection to prompt the body to prepare for a fight. The best mimic for an HIV infection would be a weakened HIV that could prime the immune system without causing disease. But because HIV mutates so quickly, there’s too much risk that even a weakened strain could “heal itself” and cause a real infection. AIDS vaccine researchers therefore genetically engineer bits and pieces of HIV into less dangerous viruses. Picker was the first to recognize that CMV was uniquely suited for this task.
At this point, he was installed in a comfortable and stable position in Dallas, where one of his jobs was studying specimens from AIDS patients. “The studies I was doing were great,” he says now. “But I realized that it was like looking at the stars—you can’t do anything about it.” He thought he could develop a CMV-based vaccine, but he’d need to test on animals—specifically, nonhuman primates.
Picker did enjoy some standing in the AIDS research world—he’d developed a test to measure T cells specifically dedicated to battling HIV, for instance. But unlike the field’s best-known researchers, he had not made his career in an HIV lab. “I didn’t have a lineage to depend on,” he says. “I had to make my own name starting from scratch. But if I was going to do academia and science, I needed to make the commitment and take the risk of failing.”
In 1999, he quit the Dallas job and came to OHSU, home of the Oregon National Primate Research Center, one of eight such labs in the country. Here he could work on an AIDS vaccine with Jay Nelson, head of OHSU’s Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute and one of the world’s leading experts in CMV. But after the initial start-up money the university gave him ran out, Picker would be living grant to grant. He’d also stop working directly with patients—probably forever. At OHSU, he’d be focusing solely on research, staking his career on his ability to do the difficult science needed to eradicate a disease that has eluded its pursuers for decades.
Picker set out to prevent AIDS, not cure it. In 2006, he and his team began vaccinating macaques against SIV, the monkey version of HIV. The researchers placed bits of SIV genes inside weakened CMV, hoping the macaques’ immune systems would then mount their natural immediate, large-scale response to CMV. “The immune system will make a response both to the CMV genes and to the SIV or HIV genes that will be in the same flavor, so to speak,” Picker explains. This approach contrasts sharply with that of most HIV vaccine projects, which typically focus on generating antibodies to block infection. Instead, Picker’s method aims to provoke T cells to prevent an infection from progressing to disease. Two years after he inoculated the first group of monkeys with the CMV-based vaccine, he exposed them to SIV.
In 2013, Nature reported Picker’s surprising findings: not only were most of the macaques able to control SIV, but over time their immune systems completely killed off the virus. It was the first evidence of monkeys eliminating the AIDS-causing virus from their bodies. Says Koff: “Louis straddles the prevention and the cure. The most intriguing thing about his vaccine is that the responding animals appear to clear the infection.”
Picker’s vaccinated monkeys are initially infected. But it’s a very low-level infection compared to the normal course of the disease—a small blip instead of a huge spike. In contrast to the typical course of SIV or HIV, which replicate at breakneck speed and overrun the body’s T cells, the bolstered immune system quickly manages this infection, rendering it undetectable in the blood within a matter of days. Remarkably, about a year in, even the most sensitive tests turn up no trace of the virus in tissues where it would normally be present. In the meantime, the monkeys don’t get sick. Today, 64 out of 119 inoculated animals are cured or on their way to being cured.
By all accounts, Picker is curious, determined, and—perhaps most crucial for AIDS vaccine research—creative. Picker’s biggest show of creativity has been his use of CMV to pump up the immune system to fight off AIDS. “Louis’s idea of using the cytomegalovirus has been very innovative,” Silvestri says. “It’s a persistent virus, highly immunogenic, mildly pathogenic in most cases, and can be modified.”
As Picker explains it, “The reason we think it works is because CMV generates these large immune responses at the body’s beachheads, all of the time. They are there at the portal of entry, where the pathogens come in, and they are at all the possible places the pathogens can spread.”
Although there’s no guarantee the results will translate to humans, many in the field are cautiously optimistic that Picker’s immune innovation could be, at the very least, one component of an effective AIDS vaccine. “The model he’s used in primates is very vigorous,” says Robert Seder, who studies vaccines for infections like HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria as chief of the cellular immunology section at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
If his vaccine is successful in humans, Picker says, “The person who’s protected would have an infection which they wouldn’t notice. They wouldn’t get sick, and it would be cleared.”
In 2008, while attending a conference in Cape Town—where, as in much of sub-Saharan Africa, HIV is rampant—Picker met South African journalist Belinda Beresford. When the two married 10 months later, he became father to her adopted son, who had lost both his biological parents to AIDS. The teenager—one of six children in their blended family—now attends high school in Portland. This connection infuses Picker’s work with a personal drive beyond his scientific ambition. “This is still a terminal illness if you’re poor,” he says. Of the more than 35 million people infected with HIV, shockingly few—only 37 percent—have access to lifesaving antiretroviral drugs. According to the World Health Organization, 1.2 million people worldwide died from AIDS in 2014, including more than 150,000 children.
And while the modern drugs are a godsend for those who can get their hands on them, they’re not perfect. Due to the latent reservoir of HIV, people on antiretrovirals still have a chronic low-level infection that causes inflammation and premature aging. Among many other side effects, AIDS drugs themselves can lead to other serious health problems, like heart disease, kidney disease, and osteoporosis.
Meanwhile, about one in eight HIV-positive Americans doesn’t even know he or she is infected. People who are HIV-negative and at high risk for infection can take a protective drug called Truvada, but must take it daily and see doctors every three months for HIV testing and refills. “It becomes a compliance issue and a cost issue,” Seder says. The US reports 50,000 new HIV cases every year; in Oregon, an average of 260 new cases are diagnosed annually, with more than 100 of those in Multnomah County. Worldwide, it’s estimated that around 2 million people become infected with HIV each year.
The only way to stop this epidemic is to prevent new infections and cure the existing ones. “In this interconnected world, we are more at risk of infectious diseases than ever,” Picker says. “They are going to come back if you don’t get rid of them completely and you don’t keep your vigilance up.”
Based on Picker’s monkey study, in 2014 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded his team and OHSU $25 million. The project’s first human study is slated to begin in late 2016. If he can raise enough money—he estimates he’ll need something like $250 million—Picker intends to lure the leading minds in the field to Portland to start a center for HIV cure research at OHSU. With roughly 10 principal investigators, a staff of hundreds, and a dedicated facility for various arms of the research, he would then aim to lay the groundwork for an HIV cure within a little over a decade.
In June, OHSU announced that it had successfully raised $1 billion for cancer research, half from Nike cofounder Phil Knight and his wife, Penny. Picker wants to play in the same league. “If they spend even half that billion dollars wisely,” he says, “OHSU will be a major global force in cancer. That’s the goal here.”
So far, betting on his scientific prowess and CMV seems to have paid off for Picker. “It’s one of those few cases where you have a lovely idea that actually seems to work,” Silvestri says. “Louis’s vaccine is the leading candidate for a preventive AIDS vaccine, and one of the most promising candidates for a therapeutic AIDS vaccine.”
There’s still a lot of difficult work to be done. Picker must show that he can weaken CMV enough that it doesn’t make anyone sick, and that he can elicit the same immune response in humans as he did in monkeys. Only then will he be able to test the vaccine’s effectiveness in humans as prevention or cure. “Advancing into people is not a small step,” Koff says.
He must also protect more subjects. Why more than 40 percent of the monkeys did become infected is a key question. Picker or other researchers must reactivate the virus’s latent reservoir so the immune system can recognize it and fight it off. And they must find and breach the “sanctuaries” in the body, places where the immune system can’t reach latent HIV even after the virus reactivates. (In a paper published in Nature Medicine in January, Picker reported an important biological sanctuary for latent HIV, the B cell follicles of the lymph system.)
Still, Picker believes his vaccine could provide what’s known as a functional cure. Even if it doesn’t wipe out every HIV-infected T cell in the body, it could lower the viral load enough for the immune system to handle it. Given time, HIV-positive people who get the shot could go off their meds without getting sick. Ever.
It would be an epochal achievement. “Being part of either a cure or a vaccine would be wonderful, because it would bring me full circle,” he says. “From being there at the very beginning when the epidemic began to watching the devastation both in this country and through my wife’s eyes in sub-
Saharan Africa—to get to the point where it’s eliminated would be fantastic.”
Even if his AIDS trials fail, Picker believes that tuberculosis, malaria, herpes simplex 2, hepatitis B, even cancer—“other scourges of mankind,” in his parlance—also make promising targets for CMV-based vaccines. Meanwhile, Picker has helped to overturn the conventional wisdom that HIV and AIDS cannot be conquered.
“It’s always nice when you have solid evidence to change dogma,” he says. “That’s new knowledge, and that’s what we’re here for.”
Every time when the year begins, people are so enthusiastic, positive and so dearly looking forward to the future of that year. Some even get to an extent of naming their year; i.e year of taking over, a year of more than enough, a year of turn around…etc, there’s just too much of these fallacies you know. The one that bores me to the bone is this one; a year of new beginnings. Why do I hate it, people are always beginning every year, they never go forward from beginning to the next level, they are always beginning, there is practically no growth in it besides recycling it.
There is a fact that we can’t ignore; naming a year doesn’t make it any different from all the others to come or that have gone by. In fact, all the years are the same, naming it a year of achievements doesn’t make that year achieve things for you. So most of us name our years and then sit down, do nothing about our declarations, I’m sorry but I think that’s fully fledged stupidity. What gives power to the declaration is the action you take to make it count. We do not normally take responsibility for what happens between the beginning of the year and when it draws to the end.
The simple principle in life is that you always get out what you put in. The amount of investment you put in should be equivalent to the amount of the result. I know that this may not be the case with our capitalist principles. In their world, you put in little and expect much, that’s fine. But nature’s principles defy that, you only get an equivalent of what you put in. Ask a farmer whether the harvest of ten seeds planted in a 20hactre farm will give you different results from the same number of seeds planted in a 10m yard. Whether the land is bigger or smaller, you only get what is equivalent to the number of seeds you planted, period! That is nature, that is how life works… If you have intentions of making this your year of achievements, start creating opportunities for yourself and seizing all those that come your way. Prepare yourself for the challenge, prepare to walk the talk.
I declared that this is my year of growth, I guess there is nothing wrong with that. In another article I wrote, I said we fail to grow because we ask the wrong questions. What questions should I answer for me to be able to ascertain whether I have grown or not at the end of the year. What is growth? Where do I want to grow, why should I grow, what is it that will help me grow, what sacrifices should I prepare to make, who can help me grow, what changes do I need to make from what I have been already doing, what used to stunt my growth before? There are many questions we surely need to ask ourselves as we set out to make this year different. As for me, I need to be able to measure and evaluate myself on whether I’m growing or not every month so that I see if it’s just a declaration or a practical move. What am I reading to help me grow etc…
We are made of many components or we are affected by several components we need to address, for some it is spiritual, academic, work-related, financial etc. We need to think about these as we set out to see our year turn out to be different from all the others. You are the power your resolutions need for them to come true… Value your goals and see yourself reap the ripest grapes, it may not be easy but it has to be done. If you do not care for yourself, no one will and you will be an example of what not to do for one to avoid failure, avoid it by taking up the charge over your life. Choose to be an example of what one should do to set successful resolutions.
This ‘f’ language really isn’t my thing but I chose to title my article that way after I saw a post on Facebook by a friend of mine and it just got me thinking. Apologies for using the ‘f’ word, I did not want to remove the same impact his post had on me when I read it. Thanks to you man, you made me think this.
By Sineke Sibanda
We have turned over to 2016 out of a horrendous 2015 and I can assure you that most of us who penned down their resolutions, they were probably a much ado about nothing. A few of us who religiously followed them really achieved little compared to what was on our diaries. I was on Forbes website yesterday and one of the quotes I met said that people who normally resort to fate are graduates of failure. This is not to rule out that there are people who strongly believe in the “fate cult”; that there is no need to plan because things will always take the course of nature. If I’m doomed to fail, I will fail, if I’m favoured to win, I will win. Taking out all the forces that are behind the doom or the victory, I want to bring ‘you’ as a force that determines either of the two. I know in Africa, people have all the superstitious answers to every failure or fortune, in Europe, they have all the logical explanations. You know what? I don’t want to be part of that trajectory because I think that it’s just a fall back platform to legitimize our failures and make us feel better about ourselves at a time we should go back to the drawing board and asses where and why we missed the heart of the dart-board.
I guess there is a proper definition as to what resolutions really are but I will explain it according to how it has been institutionalised into my genes ever since I left primary school. They said new year’s resolutions are projections of what you want to achieve at specific time frames of the year. One of the things that I was never told is that the how to, why to needs to be figured out by no one else but me and if I did not, my resolutions would remain on that paper; beside the point that I was told to be particular about the when to achieve them.
I remember some of my 2015 resolutions were to own a driver’s license, travel to four African countries for the holidays among many others, a bit too personal. Sadly, I have very convincing excuses on why none of these were achieved. Trust me if I tell you my reasons, you will really say f**k resolutions… But to be quite honest, I think there is no need to f**k resolutions because at the end it all, we are the people who screw up our resolutions due to several reasons. There is an old adage that says life is what you make it, when I looked at it while writing my 2016 resolutions, it read differently and made perfect sense. I could have made my life if I had I asked myself the right questions. The reasons why most resolutions fail is because we ask the wrong questions. When you ask yourself the wrong questions, you are bound to get wrong answers, if that happens, then you are doomed.
We are also afraid of challenging what we already know. One thing I have learnt over the years is that you can never grow beyond what you already know. The amount of what you know determines how far you reach. Some of our resolutions have failed because we didn’t acquire the necessary knowledge to achieve them. It’s so sad that we want to be better but do not dare ourselves to try that which will make us better. If you are afraid of challenging yourself to reach out to the deep, then don’t hope to get there. The idea is to be able to match your resolutions with a proper plan of action and then act.
One other funny thing that normally happens is that when we write our resolutions, we tend to go up the terraces and expect to see them work out miraculous somersault for us. Really? Everything on earth requires motion and action, nothing goes on autopilot, you need to be part of the resolution, once you distance yourself from it, forget the miracle. You need to be part of the resolution, nothing happens on its own. You make things happen.
The next point reminds me of a song by Imagine Dragons from the Night Vision album, “Demons”, ‘nomater what we breed, we still are made of greed’. It’s true, we are made of greed but I think we are still reasonable enough to know that we cannot be greedy on ourselves. I mean you are the resolution yourself. The principle of chewing only enough for you to swallow applies here. The best you can do is to pen down your resolutions, break the targets down to smaller bits that you can assimilate and work on getting the desired result in short time frames and then assess yourself at those specific time frames and measure your success.
For the guys that believe in just doing it, it’s good too, just do it but till when will we continue walking blindly without an idea of the future. The reason why we tend to think resolutions don’t work, it’s because we don’t make provisions for playing while we achieve our goals. Play hard and work hard, simple. As you reach out to your goals, make the process enjoyable.
Life is funny, you only get out of it what you put into it. So discipline yourself enough to reach out to the best of life. Work on your resolutions and put your heart, soul and spirit to making them come true, no miracles this time around, otherwise, instead of F**king resolutions, you know who to ‘f’…