Pioneering AIDS activist Spencer Cox dies of HIV-related complications

Pioneering AIDS activist Spencer Cox dies of HIV-related complications

Spencer Cox, the the New York-based AIDS activist who was featured in the documentary “How to Survive a Plague,” died Tuesday of complications related to HIV. He was 44.

Cox, a spokesman for the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) by the age of 20, was the co-founder of TAG (Treatment Action Group), and led research on protease inhibitors which saved millions of lives.

Spencer Cox
Cox also founded the Medius Institute for Gay Men’s Health, a think tank focusing on gay male emotional health.


From 1994 to 1999, he was Director of the HIV Project for TAG, where he did his groundbreaking work in drug trials designs.

He designed the drug trial adopted in part by Abbott as they were developing Norvir, the first Protease Inhibitor to head into human trials. It had an “open standard-of-care arm,” allowing people on the control arm to take any other anti-AIDS drugs their doctors prescribed, versus the arm taking any other anti-AIDS drugs plus Norvir.

It was this study that showed a 50% drop in mortality in 6 months. Norvir was approved in late 1995. Though the results were positive, the proposal sharply divided the community, many of whom thought it was cruel to withhold Norvir on the control arm. Spencer defended himself in a controversial BARON’S coverstory that made him, briefly, the most-hated AIDS activist in America. Ultimately he was vindicated.

“Spencer single-handedly sped up the development and marketing of the protease inhibitors, which currently are saving 8 million lives,” says TAG executive director Mark Harrington. “He was absolutely brilliant, just off the charts brilliant.”

David France, Producer/Director of “How to Survive a Plague,” posted this interview in which Cox describes what, if any, lessons came from the plague, and from the effort it took to develop effective drugs, 15 years after HIV’s first headlines in 1981:

In his last blog for POZ, Cox said, “If I have one piece of advice for young, aspiring activists, it is to always hold on to the joy, always make it fun. If you lose that, you have lost the whole battle.”

A memorial service for Cox is scheduled for this Sunday, Dec. 23 in New York.

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