News and analysis
February 23, 2015

Amfar Makes $100-Million Push for an End to AIDS by 2020


Sensing that a cure is near, the Foundation for AIDS Research, or Amfar, has committed $100-million that will go, in part, toward a research center committed to ending the disease in the next five years.

Since the AIDS epidemic started in the 1980s, a lot of private and government support has gone toward prevention and drug therapies that alleviate the disease’s symptoms. Amfar’s pledge is one of several recent efforts that seek a cure.

The nonprofit’s pledge will be fueled by a fundraising campaign announced last year called Countdown to a Cure for AIDS. It consists of $20-million to create the Amfar Institute of HIV Cure Research at an institution that has yet to be named and a series of grant programs that will support promising research.

In 2013, the nonprofit made grants totaling about $8-million. If successful, the campaign will more than double that amount on an annual basis.

Kevin Frost, the group’s chief executive officer, says he’s held talks with donors for more than a year about the $100-million drive. Philanthropist Aileen Getty, the former daughter-in-law of the late actress and AIDS activist Elizabeth Taylor, gave $1-million, as did Amfar board trustees David Bohnett and Donald Capoccia, according to Mr. Frost.

In 2013, the most recent year for which figures are available, the charity raised about $34-million in private support, according to its informational tax return. While Mr. Frost would not say how much the charity has already raised for Countdown to a Cure, he was confident that it would meet its goal.

"The science has ripened in a way that makes this a doable plan," he says. "This is not pie-in-the-sky."

Trends in Giving

The pledge by Amfar, a charity, is far smaller than the amounts private foundations and the federal government have committed. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for instance, has given more than $1.4-billion to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and made grants totaling $2.5-billion to various HIV programs.

But its emphasis on research aimed at finding a cure aligns with recent trends in support for the cause of fighting AIDS.

The Gates foundation, for instance, last September donated $25-million to researchers at Oregon Heath & Science University to find a vaccine and a cure for the disease.

In recent years the National Institutes of Health, which devotes about $3-billion to AIDS research in the current federal budget, has allocated more money to finding an AIDS cure rather than merely alleviating the suffering of patients. Recent projects include the creation of a program called the Martin Delaney Collaboratory: Towards an HIV-1 Cure, a consortium of scientists in the United States and Europe who share knowledge about the disease.

Mr. Frost praised NIH’s efforts to support work on a cure but said smaller, privately funded research teams would likely achieve success faster than scientists working in the lumbering federal bureaucracy.

Filling in the Blanks

Ken Rapkin, a program officer at the Campbell Foundation, a Florida grant maker that made a $50,000 pledge to the Amfar campaign, echoed Mr. Frost’s assessment.

While the development of medicines have helped people live longer, healthier lives with HIV/AIDS, the disease still kills about 14,000 Americans a year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. New therapies have benefited public health, Mr. Rapkin said, but have masked the dangers of the disease and made searching for a cure a lower priority.

While federally funded research is critical, he said, dealing with the government is a slow grind, where progress is measured in inches.

"Philanthropy can pick up where the government can’t and fill in the blanks," he says.

Amfar plans to announce the institution that will house its planned institute next fall.

The other $80-million that makes up Amfar’s commitment will include:

  • "Innovation grants" of $200,000 given over two years to support early-stage research
  • "Impact" grants of $2-million over two years that will support research that is further along.
  • "Investment grants" of up to $1-million to attract scientists from other fields, like cancer research, to collaborate with AIDS scientists.

Send an e-mail to Alex Daniels.