Meet Prof. Kwasi Torpey: The New Scientific Chair of the 15th Annual INTEREST Conference

The INTEREST Conference, the premier scientific conference for HIV in Africa, was established by the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development (AIGHD) founder, the late Joep Lange, and the late Dr. Charles Boucher of the Academic Medical Education. Both organizations continue to co-organize the annual event in a different African country each year. In 2014, Dr. Catherine Hankins took over the Scientific Chair from Joep and has made the conference into what it is today. INTEREST 2020 was Dr. Hankins’ last year in this role when she passed the torch to the conference’s first African Scientific Chair, Prof. Kwasi Torpey.

INTEREST 2021, which will be held virtually this year from 12-14 October due to the current pandemic, marks the first conference that Prof. Torpey will chair. This INTEREST Conference will bring together researchers engaged in HIV treatment, pathogenesis and prevention research globally, though INTEREST is mostly intended to build and strengthen a community of African physicians and scientists. Given the African locus of this HIV conference, Prof. Torpey is an apt fit for this leadership role, having been involved in HIV prevention, treatment, program implementation and education for the past 20 years in Sub-Saharan Africa. Here, Prof. Torpey shares some key career highlights—from HIV prevention campaigns in Africa’s pre-antiretroviral era, to overseeing one of the earliest HIV treatment interventions in Africa, to working in program implementation around the continent—to some insights on the INTEREST Conference overall and thoughts about the future of HIV.

After graduating from medical school, Prof. Kwasi Torpey worked in a number of Hospitals in his native Ghana, including KorleBu Teaching Hospital and Ridge Hospital. He also worked in the Ghana Police Hospital where he was involved in HIV prevention for uniformed officers. At the time, police officers comprised a vulnerable population due to their high-risk behaviors and frequent nationwide travel. This was prior to the availability of HIV medicines within Sub-Saharan Africa, so Prof. Torpey and his team were focused on prevention and risk mitigation.

Shortly after, FHI 360—formerly Family Health International—selected Prof. Torpey to take part in creating guidelines for the first HIV treatment program for public health settings in Africa. In the first trial, antiretroviral drugs were only available for 100 patients, but treatment for this sample was a success. For Prof. Torpey, this trial intervention served as a transitional gateway, leading him to leave his Ghanaian regional bubble to guide HIV program implementation throughout the continent. He served as the Director of Technical Support for FHI 360’s Zambia Prevention, Care and Treatment Partnership (ZPCT). Prof. Torpey also served as the Deputy Chief of Party, Technical for the organization Strengthening Integrated Delivery of HIV/AIDS Services (SIDHAS) in Nigeria.

Reflecting on working across the continent, Prof. Kwasi Torpey modestly assures that cultural differences did not pose significant challenges for HIV program implementation. However, he maintains that a government’s capacity to address HIV, alongside its willingness to develop novel, innovative treatment approaches, were decisive in intervention success. Prof. Torpey cites Malawi, Zimbabwe, and particularly Zambia, as exemplary game-changers that pushed boundaries, allowing for creativity in interventions and setting the standard for HIV programs throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. However, Prof. Torpey has even gone beyond Africa, working with the Global Fund as HIV Focal Point for the Technical Review Panel. Prof. Torpey was a facilitator for the flagship Short Course In Antiretroviral Therapy (SCART) by the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium. With this passion for education and HIV interventions, Prof. Torpey eventually returned to his home country to teach at the University of Ghana College of Health Sciences while supporting the implementation of other programs.

The full arc of Prof. Torpey’s career is complex and varied, marked by international collaboration, both the generation and dissemination of knowledge and witnessing many phases in the management of a disease that has marred the African continent for nearly 30 years. Prof. Torpey’s life story, in many ways, parallels his new role as Scientific Chair of the 2021 INTEREST Conference. Valuing international collaboration and the production and sharing of knowledge, the INTEREST Conference speaks to Prof Torpey’s experiences in HIV and deeply held values. He states that being asked to lead is humbling.

Prof. Kwasi Torpey, with his team of five, attended the first ever INTEREST Conference in Kampala, Uganda, in a single room of 150 to 200 people in 2007. Having attended 10 conferences since then, he claims to have deeply benefitted from INTEREST since its early roots, seeing it as a familial movement and intimate learning environment. Being asked to lead, Prof. Torpey wishes to return the favor by building the capacity for young Africans to make connections crucial for preventing and treating HIV.

As the Scientific Chair of the 2021 INTEREST Conference, Prof. Torpey aims to establish it as the premier HIV symposium for Africans by expanding its accessibility across the continent. Prof. Torpey has identified numerous African speakers to discuss cutting edge topics related to HIV. Ultimately, with African health stakeholders as INTEREST’s core audience, Prof. Torpey wishes to continue this conference’s legacy in strengthening inter-African collaboration and sharing knowledge to improve HIV interventions.

Alongside invigorating the INTEREST Conference, Prof. Kwasi Torpey has been uniquely confronted with leading the symposium in the midst of a global pandemic. He remarks that much is unknown about the relationship between HIV and COVID-19, notably how COVID-19 interacts with the immune responses of HIV-positive people. Thus, Prof. Torpey is making it a point to find scientists who can get involved in this emerging field of research. Prof. Torpey also cites the social ramifications of this pandemic and their effect on HIV treatment interventions. Adherence to antiretroviral therapy has declined in some African countries as many patients avoid clinics to due to fears of contracting COVID-19 from healthcare workers. However, Prof. Torpey also states that this pandemic may serendipitously benefit health research and lead to innovation. For example, he raises the question of how scientists can learn from the expedient creation of the COVID-19 vaccine in the production of one for HIV. Additionally, virtual case management, which has emerged in response to COVID-19, may be beneficial for HIV treatment.

Though Prof. Torpey has seen leaps in HIV management and treatment over the decades, there is still much that will be on the agenda for INTEREST in future years. There still is no cure or vaccine for HIV, PrEP is not widely accessible in Sub-Saharan Africa and there remain gaps in closing the 95-95-95 goals—meaning 95% of people living with HIV tested, 95% of whom would be treated, and 95% of whom would be virally suppressed. Prof. Torpey cites funding as a major challenge to HIV management in Africa. The vast majority of funding is external, coming from organizations like PEPFAR, the Global Fund, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others. Local financing for HIV interventions remains low in many countries, who either cannot afford the response or can but do not invest. That being said, HIV has been significantly curbed in Sub-Saharan Africa since the rollout of antiretroviral therapy, making treatment and prevention more attainable. With the possibility of ending AIDS globally by the year 2030, Prof. Torpey leads a new generation of young African researchers to determine the fate of the virus on this continent.