David Ho, HIV Research Pioneer

Landmark Research Paves the Way to Combination HIV Therapy

David Da-i Ho in 2009. Photo Credit: Rockefeller University

David Da-i Ho is a Taiwan-born American scientist whose pioneering research into HIV/AIDS garnered him international acclaim, which included being named TIME magazine's "Man of the Year" in 1996.

In addition to his continuing contributions to HIV vaccine design, Ho is remembered as being instrumental in challenging the AIDS denialist policies of former South African president Thabo Mbeki, whom he publicly censured at the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa in 2000.

Background and Early Career

David Ho was born in Taichung, Taiwan on November 3, 1952 and immigrated to the U.S. with his family after completing sixth grade. He spent teens in early adult years in California, where he graduated with top honors from California Institute of Technology.

After getting his M.D. degree from Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology and practicing as an internist and infectious disease specialist a number of top research hospitals, Ho took up the post of chief resident at the Cedar Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles just as the first cases of AIDS were being reported in the U.S.

Contributions to HIV/AIDS Research

Ho's early research into HIV dynamics and replication was instrumental in creating a model for combination HIV therapy when the current thinking was focused on a single drug treatment strategy.

Ho believed that by inhibiting multiples stages in the HIV replication cycle, scientists would be able to entirely suppress the virus to levels where it would not only be undetectable but would prevent the high rates of treatment failure seen in patients taking only one or two drugs.

In 1996, with the introduction of a third class of HIV drugs (called protease inhibitors), doctor could now prescribe triple therapy—a strategy which after only one year cut the death rate in the U.S. by half.

This dramatic turnaround ushered in the era of HAART (highly active antiretroviral therapy), while Ho, seen a champion of this groundbreaking strategy, received TIME's coveted "Man of the Year" distinction for "helping lift a death sentence for... tens of thousands of AIDS sufferers [sic], and for pioneering the treatment that just might lead to a cure."

In addition, Ho received Presidential Citizens Medal in 2001 from President Bill Clinton, as well as 12 honorary doctorates for his contributions to HIV sciences.

AIDS Scientist Turned Activist

In the late 1990s, South Africa was isolated from the global AIDS community as a result of South African president Thabo Mbeki's rampant denial of HIV, a position he held despite the fact that more 1,000 South Africans were of the disease dying every day.

Ironically, at the height of the controversy, Durban, South Africa was slated as the site of the 2000 International AIDS Conference. As opening speaker, Mbeki asserted to the conference audience that "it seemed to me that we could not blame everything on a single virus" and concluded that everything from poverty to river blindness could explain the rising death rate in his country.

Despite the shock of conference attendees, there was only a spattering of protests from individuals in the audience, Even the AIDS protest group, Treatment Action Campaign, seemed too stunned to reply.

Instead, Mbeki was allowed to leave the stage with a round of faint, albeit polite, applause.

The next day, at the conference plenary meeting, David Ho began his scheduled talk with a projected image of HIV audience and announced to everyone: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is the cause of AIDS." The rapturous applause that followed led to the immediate release of the Durban Declaration, a document protesting Mbeki's policies which was signed by leading politicians, activists, and scientists, including Ho.

Many credit the events of that day as the turning point in South Africa, whereby the government was finally forced to launch its antiretroviral treatment program in 2004. For his part, Mbeki was removed from office by his own party in 2008.

Later Career

At age 37, David Ho was named Director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York, where he continues to focus his research efforts on the development of HIV vaccine candidates. These including efforts to spur an immunologic response to HIV, including broadly neutralizing antibodies (bNaBs) which have the capacity to kill a wide array of HIV variants.

Ho lives with his wife, artist Susan Kuo Ho, and his three children in New York City.


Time Magazine. "Man of the Year 1996: The Tao of Ho."

Frontline. "The Age of AIDS: Interview David Ho." Public Broadcasting Service (PBS); aired March 30, 2006.

"Speech of the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, at the Opening Session of the 13th International AIDS Conference." South African Government Online. July 9, 2000.

Continue Reading