Before Rashad Burgess held the professional title of Vice President of Advancing Health and Equity at Gilead Sciences or the personal identification of husband and father, he witnessed the devastating effects of HIV in the early nineties as a gay teenager growing up on the south side of Chicago. As it did then, today, the disproportionate impact of HIV in the Black community experienced by Black gay men continues to fuel Burgess' work.
"I got to see what happens when you have inequity and communities being disproportionately impacted by HIV," Burgess tells The Reckoning. "I've always felt a call to make a difference in communities that felt like they were on the margins or felt vulnerable. No matter what role I've had in my career, that has driven me."
Formerly the Branch Chief of Capacity Building in the HIV/AIDS Prevention Division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Burgess has dedicated most of his adult life and the last nine years with Gilead Sciences toward decreasing the impact of HIV in Black communities. In July, he stepped into his new role at Gilead Sciences as Vice President of Advancing Health and Equity.
The Reckoning spoke with Burgess about Gilead's efforts to tackle the HIV epidemic in the South. In a wide-ranging conversation, Burgess talks about Gilead's $100 million COMPASS Initiative, the impact of COVID-19 on testing and care, the importance of education and access to PrEP to curb new acquisitions, and why he believes the epidemic will end in his lifetime.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Reckoning: There has been significant progress in medical advancements in the fight to eradicate HIV, but the virus is still an epidemic in the South. Can you expound on the impact of these advancements among Black queer men?
Burgess: There are a number of ways in which we can look at the progress that's been made, whether we are looking at death rates or infection rates—we've definitely seen improvements from that perspective. We still find ourselves navigating the disproportionate impact of HIV in African American and Latinx communities and among men who have sex with men (MSM). The intersection thereof, and I think that's an important call out because those communities don't exist in separation. They actually exist in quite a bit of intersection. And so, that's often where we see some of the most marginalized and vulnerable communities for HIV.
At Gilead, we've been very fortunate to advance therapies in HIV. We now have standards of care that allow people to be virally suppressed, to take one medication a day, and live their lives as long as they're taking their medication, not having to see some of the same outcomes that we saw back in the nineties. People are able to thrive today and do well when they have access to care. I think that's important.
The Reckoning: Does that continue to be one of the challenges—getting people into and keeping them in care?
Burgess: We recognize that if we're going to end this epidemic, it goes far beyond medicines. And while our innovations in medicine are a key component, there are other issues that we must address in terms of the social determinants of health, whether it be in education, poverty, or access to care. That's why we are committed to our work around health equity and want to fulfill our responsibility as good corporate citizens.
The Reckoning: Continuing the conversation about care. I have to imagine the coronavirus pandemic greatly impacted any progress in HIV care that occurred before the world shut down.
Burgess: COVID did have an impact in terms of HIV, both around testing and care. While there are some places where we have seen recovery, there are other places where we've still got more work to do. And a lot of those places are in Black and brown communities.
We find ourselves now at a place where we have to do work to get people back into care and into HIV testing on a routine basis because we've learned that when we don't do that, people don't have the health outcomes that we all desire. People don't end up virally suppressed because they're not taking their medications, or they are undiagnosed and end up diagnosed in the emergency room, which in places like Atlanta often means they are getting a simultaneous AIDS diagnosis. So it's something that we, along with our partners, are working hard to ensure we are bringing attention to.
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