Elton John woos – and wows – the biotech industry

Aids took centre stage at the BIO conference in Atlanta with a powerful performance from Elton John, Aids fundraiser extraordinaire, as the day’s keynote lunch speaker.

There is no denying the draw of celebrity, and half an hour before admission the lines snaked for several hundred metres round the Georgia World Congress Centre. The last speaker to pull in such a big BIO crowd was Bill Clinton in Chicago three years ago.

Several thousand people eventually filed into the lunch venue, a gigantic exhibition hall, and sat around circular tables to eat a salad of rare roast beef on iceberg lettuce followed by lime cheesecake.

The warm-up acts before Elton were standard fare at BIO plenary lunches. Brilliant high school science students and a star teacher won educational awards. A heart-rending film called Saving Roman showed sick children who could be helped through biotech research. The annual Biotechnology Heritage award went to Robert Fraley of Monsanto for work on GM crops. Sunny Perdue, Governor of Georgia, won the Governor of the Year award.

At last Kristine Peterson, group chair of Johnson & Johnson, one of the companies most active in Aids research, introduced Sir Elton (as everyone respectfully called him here) and he bounded up to the podium, wearing an orange-red round-necked shirt under a black suit – and his trademark orange-tinted glasses.

As someone who never seen him live or heard him speak, I was struck by Elton’s lively demeanor and strong, deep voice. He sounds like a successful English stage actor.

But enough of the superficial details. Elton’s message is that Americans have become dangerously complacent about Aids in their own country and worldwide. More than 1m Americans are living with HIV – one third of them under the age of 30 and most from poor and disadvantaged groups.

The lack of good educational materials about Aids is shocking, he said, and so is the refusal of the federal government to fund a clean needle exchange scheme that would reduce the spread of HIV among injecting drug addicts.

“Fewer and fewer Americans identify Aids as a public health priority,” he said. “It frightens me particularly that the number of young people concerned about Aids is plummeting.”

Elton ended with a challenge to the biotech industry to increase its rate of innovation in producing Aids drugs and vaccines.

Sadly Elton declined my request for an interview – and, more importantly, BIO’s request to take part in a press conference after his speech. But BIO, the Biotechnology Industry Organisation, held a media briefing anyway.

“Sir Elton John challenged our industry to address the gap between what we are doing and what we should be doing,” said Jim Greenwood, BIO chief executive. “We are here to accept that challenge.”

Three companies – GeoVax, Argos and Tibotec (a J&J subsidiary) – outlined progress on Aids vaccines and treatments. And Aids activists David Miller and Michael Manganillo, once sworn enemies of an industry they accused of profiting excessively from their disease, were there to give their support.

The Elton John Aids Foundation has raised $150m for community-based Aids project since its foundation in 1992. BIO said it would contribute $150,000 to the foundation and it challenged the “biotech community” to match that with small individual donations.

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