The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Real Reagan Record on AIDS

Peter Huber at City Journal has an excellent corrective to the narrative, accepted as gospel among liberals/progressives, that the Reagan Administration did nothing about the AIDS crisis that erupted during the Reagan years and was only tamed in the 1990s with the advent of drugs that ended AIDS’ status as an automatic death sentence. Reagan’s record on AIDS is certainly not above criticism, particularly the President’s hesitance to address it from the personal bully pulpit of the White House. But that’s the symbolic side of the job, and Reagan had a lot of major issues to contend with in office – one can just as easily find a long list of conservative causes he never devoted enough attention to, especially with the hindsight knowledge that George W. Bush would be the closest we’d see to a conservative in the Oval Office between 1988 and 2020. It’s hard to argue, with or without the benefit of hindsight, with Reagan’s ultimate decision that winning the Cold War and getting the economy out from under the stagflation of the 1980s were the two paramount causes of his time in the office. As I’ve detailed before, even some of the problems that took a back seat to these two priorities, such as apartheid in South Africa, became much easier to resolve due to Reagan’s choice of priorities.

The people who actually focused on AIDS during the Reagan years were Reagan’s appointees to jobs responsible for public health, and the agencies under their direction – exactly the people who should have been handling the issue. While Huber references the comparatively well-known efforts of the Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, the focus of his piece is the unsung role of Reagan’s FDA, which acted in line with the conservative enthusiasm of the era for slashing bureaucratic red tape, and ended up laying the foundation for the drugs that would eventually halt the crisis:

As the gravity of the AIDS threat became clear, the Reagan FDA began writing new rules that spelled out when significant parts of the old rules wouldn’t be fully or rigorously enforced. By doing so, the agency accelerated patient access to desperately needed drugs. Pharmaceutical companies quickly began coming on board once new policies were in place that would speed up the approval of their drugs. In short order, the firms delivered a slew of powerful new drugs, using the new tools for designing precisely targeted drugs that were coming of age at that time. As the National Academy of Sciences later noted, the extraordinarily fast development of drugs that ended up in the cocktails now used to control HIV had a “revolutionary effect on modern drug design.”

Read the whole thing, including lessons for the FDA and the medical community to follow in the future.


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