Groundbreaking Atlanta HIV group closing after 32 years

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The AIDS Research Consortium of Atlanta closes in December after three decades as one of the most respected HIV/AIDS research facilities in the country.

ARCA enrolled thousands of residents in some 300 clinical HIV drug trials since it opened in 1988. The effort contributed to the licensing of 25 HIV/AIDS drug treatments by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

“COVID probably contributed to the timing of our closing, but I think the changing landscape of HIV research has contributed the most to our closing,” ARCA Founder and Executive Director Melanie Thompson told Project Q Atlanta.

“We’re very proud that we were able to contribute to the FDA approval of almost all of the drugs that currently exist for HIV treatment and prevention,” she added.

ARCA was the first HIV clinical research center in Atlanta. It played a critical role in huge steps against AIDS, said Carlos del Rio, co-director of the Emory Center for AIDS Research.

“Over the years, ARCA has contributed to some of the pivotal trials in HIV treatment and prevention and has, as a result, helped improve the lives of people living with HIV and at risk of HIV in Atlanta,” he said.

Jeff Graham, Georgia Equality’s executive director, served on several boards and committees with Thompson. He started his activism in HIV issues and credits ARCA with helping to change the perception of HIV.

“The entire concept for people being able to live a healthy life with HIV is rooted in the work of ARCA over the last three decades,” he said.

ARCA’s work has saved countless lives as its employees worked behind the scenes, according to Daniel Driffin, co-chair of the Fulton County HIV/AIDS Prevention Care & Policy Advisory Committee. Thompson served as interim chair of the committee until earlier this year.

“And people may never know who those workers were, and I think that’s remarkable to think about,” he said.

Daniel Driffin, co-chair of the Fulton County HIV/AIDS Prevention Care & Policy Advisory Committee

‘Radical and revolutionary’

ARCA’s collaborative model was one of its greatest accomplishments, according to Thompson.

“We created a consortium that included the entire city and all of the care practices at the time that were serving people with HIV,” she said. “So we did something really different. By coming together and working together not for any particular clinic or practice, what we did was to create something that was accessible to any person in the city of Atlanta or any of the surrounding counties who were living with HIV.”

That model made it possible for people to join studies offering lifesaving treatment when thousands per year in Georgia were dying with complications of AIDS.

“They were able to get lifesaving drugs at the time when there were no lifesaving drugs for them,” Thompson said. “People still come up to me on the street and remind me that they were in ARCA studies 25 years ago and they credit the study for their being alive today.”

ARCA’s collaborative model also extended to people with HIV/AIDS reviewing protocols and research. Their input went directly into establishing best practices, according to Graham.

“It is so much more accepted today, but how radical and revolutionary it was to get people with AIDS in the door to help make these decisions 30-plus years ago,” he said. “And that now is pretty standard across the board for a lot of people that are living with life-threatening or even chronic disease.”

ARCA wrote and participated in the first PrEP study in the U.S. It enrolled gay and bisexual men on the antiretroviral Tenofovir as a preventive when the concept wasn’t popular.

“That was really earth-shattering in a way and frankly was met with a lot of pushback in the Atlanta community,” Thompson said. “It is fascinating to me that there were so many people who thought it was not right to study medicine to prevent HIV, and that people just needed to use condoms.”

Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham (photo by Patrick Saunders)

Changing face of HIV in Atlanta

Thompson said it was ARCA’s role as strictly a research facility that led to its closure. She said ending HIV now means people getting into care and staying there to keep the virus suppressed. People with HIV also need housing, transportation and mental health services amid challenges like structural racism, stigma and discrimination.

“That’s really the story of our epidemic in Atlanta,” Thompson said. “ARCA’s model was right for the time, but I don’t think our model is the best model right now for where we are in Atlanta for 2020.”

Thompson and ARCA are busy winding down the remaining studies before permanently closing the facility.

“The first priority is taking care of the patients,” she said.

The organization is donating office equipment and supplies to non-profits and selling medical equipment at a discounted price. (Interested groups should email ARCA for more information.)

“That includes three freezers that are ultra-low temperature, which are perfect for storing vaccines like the coronavirus vaccine,” Thompson said.

ARCA’s work is done, but Thompson’s is far from it.

“I’m going to continue in the fight,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do to end the HIV epidemic in Atlanta and in Georgia and in our country, and I intend to be involved in those fights in whatever way I can be useful. I am open to new possibilities.”

This story is made possible by a grant from Google News Initiative’s Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.

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