Kyle Murphy, the communications director for the national AIDS advocacy group AIDS United, released to a listserv of AIDS activists a letter informing AIDS United’s president and CEO and other officials and staff members that he was resigning from his job because the group accepts large sums of money from pharmaceutical companies.
Murphy states in his Aug. 9 letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Washington Blade, that AIDS United is among nearly all of the nation’s AIDS advocacy organizations that for years have worked for the interests of people with HIV/AIDS who accept money from drug companies.
He said that although he does not think any of the groups and their leaders have compromised their basic principles and objectives for fighting AIDS, the widespread contributions by the nation’s largest pharmaceutical companies to AIDS organizations gives the appearance of a conflict of interest, even if no compromises have been made.
“This decision was not made lightly, and I hope that all of you will believe that the primary source of my anguish the last several months was the inspiration and kindship that I feel for each of you,” he said in his letter. “I am an AIDS United constituent. I am a gay man. I am also living with HIV,” he wrote.
“You are my heroes, and I have been so inspired by each and every one of you, and the call to end this epidemic,” he said. “But when it all is said and done, the mission of our constituents are what matter and we are not serving like we should,” he states in his letter.
“Not out of some malevolence. But rather, our collective hearts wrote a check, that our budgets couldn’t cash,” his letter continues. “And so with the best of intentions and the sincere desire to be good partners with our colleagues in both the public and private sector, we have been slowly bought off. And most of us know it. We just aren’t willing to say it,” Murphy says in his letter.
As one example of a possible conflict of interest, Murphy points out how most AIDS organizations and the “vast majority” of the HIV community have become strong supporters of the HIV prevention regimen known as PrEP in which the drug Truvada, manufactured by pharmaceutic giant Gilead Sciences, is widely used and promoted.
“This support may or may not have been related to the sizeable donations that Gilead Sciences makes to almost every single HIV service provider, advocacy organization and patient interest group in the country,” Murphy states in his letter. “But the mere fact that this potential and glaring conflict of interest exists, should be enough to give all of us pause,” he wrote.
“I cannot say that Gilead Sciences or any other pharmaceutical company has inappropriately influenced any decision that the leadership of AIDS United or any of its many partners have made,” Murphy states in his letter. “But I do know that their status as a contributor is a consideration when we decide how to respond to questions around drug pricing, PrEP access, and drug safety,” he wrote.
“And that alone is enough for me to decide that I can no longer work for an organization that has representatives from these companies on its board,” Murphy stated.
William McColl, AIDS United’s Vice President for Policy and Advocacy, sent an email message to the listserv members who received Murphy’s letter, giving what he said was background information on some of the issues raised by Murphy.
“We greatly respect Kyle and wish him the best in his future,” McColl said in his message.
McColl noted that pharmaceutical company representatives have served on AIDS United’s board “dating back more than 30 years” and currently include representatives from Gilead Sciences and the pharmaceutical company ViiV Healthcare. He said approximately 24 percent of AIDS United’s fiscal year 2018-2019 budgets of more than $16 million are funded by pharmaceutical companies.
“Virtually all of this funding supports grants directly to organizations supporting people living with HIV,” McColl said in his message. “We seek to engage with funders (including pharmaceutical partners) precisely because it helps us to bring additional financial resources to the most difficult issues and underserved populations in the HIV epidemic; sometimes where funding might otherwise not be available,” he states in his email message.
“Our mission to end the HIV epidemic in the U.S. and serve our constituents is front and center with any decision we make as to an organization and we will consider opportunities to partner, including with pharmaceutical companies, where it advances this mission,” he wrote. “AIDS United has been and will continue to be transparent about the sources of its funding, which is publicly available information.”
Jesse Milan Jr., AIDS United’s president and CEO, told the Blade in a separate statement that the organization has included people on its board from a wide range of “stakeholders,” including funders.
“AIDS United engages with a wide spectrum of donors, including pharmaceutical funders, to support our grant-making, policy and advocacy, and capacity building work,” Milan said. “Their commitment makes much that we do possible, including funding many of our grants that support the work of hundreds of community organizations each year.”