Dr. Ken Ho Leverages Insights from Innovative HIV/AIDS Work to Help Examine Disparities and Advance Community Health Throughout Pandemic

Dr. Ken Ho

 Why HIV experts turned into some of the best COVID-19 leaders

When the threat of COVID-19 descended, University of Pittsburgh infectious disease expert Ken Ho, MD, MPH was well-primed to step up to the challenge. For 14 years, Dr. Ho has investigated biomedical strategies for HIV prevention, from microbicides to HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (known as PrEP, daily medication to treat and prevent the spread of HIV), and in 2013 he established the UPMC PrEP clinic. Among the first in the region to publicly support PrEP along with telehealth to provide the medication, Dr. Ho helped to develop the AIDS Free Pittsburgh PrEP toolkit, which has become a core teaching tool for many providers in the region. His insights, presentations, and advice on improving services for clients has been vital to the success of AIDS Free Pittsburgh and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation's (JHF) HIV/AIDS work over the past seven years. Simply, he wants to stop (and cure) HIV – and has played a major role in accomplishing this goal for Pittsburgh and beyond. But when COVID-19 hit, Dr. Ho leveraged his expertise to address the world's newest infectious disease.

Dr. Ho has led Pittsburgh's effort in the multicenter COMPASS Study examining how COVID-19 impacts different communities across the U.S. The study aims to shed light on the disparities that we already know already exist within our health system, giving us important data to address gaps and improve our response to the pandemic. With his work in HIV/AIDS, and his sensitivity to the inequities of the healthcare system and its history of exploitation in certain groups, Dr. Ho guides on-the-ground research to learn about COVID-19's impact on Pittsburgh residents. "I think people need to be able to trust the person on the other end," noted Dr. Ho. "That counts for a lot."

Dr. Ho has worked as one of the investigators on ACTG-5401 (ACTIV-2), a multicenter clinical trial of multiple monoclonal antibody treatments and other new therapies for COVID-19. The local study is led by Dr. Madhu Choudary. 

Dr. Ho has also worked as an investigator for the AstraZeneca vaccine trial. This is just one of three Pittsburgh vaccine trials, which drew from the strength of the city's HIV researchers, who bring a valuable skillset to investigate a new virus. "The COVID-19 vaccine trials involved a lot of HIV clinical trials groups because we're very used to clinical protocols and what is needed for this work," said Dr. Ho.

In his free time, Dr. Ho enjoys figure skating.

As sexually transmitted infections persist, Dr. Ho still makes time for his ongoing HIV research. He is excited that just as his HIV work prepared him for COVID-19 research, the reverse is also true. The University of Pittsburgh was recently selected to be a HIV vaccine trial network site, and Dr. Ho will soon begin additional research on HIV vaccines.

In his free time, Dr. Ho is a competitive figure skater. He has competed annually at the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships from 2011 to 2019 and has won medals. He started skating in college as part of a physical education requirement and was quickly hooked. He now skates on behalf of the Pittsburgh Figure Skating Club, and his coach is Elena Valova, an Olympic gold medalist from 1984. His favorite move is called the "hydroblade," and his favorite program is his 2019 competitive program skated to Donna Summer's "Last Dance."

During this challenging time, Dr. Ho has been encouraged by the way his research colleagues and the community have rallied together, constantly looking for opportunities to leverage the power of collaboration. JHF cannot give enough thanks for Dr. Ho's contributions and his commitment to the health of our region.

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