HIV, tuberculosis and malaria may rebound due to COVID-19 pandemic, speakers at the 23rd International AIDS Conference warned
  • COVID-19 threatens to reverse some of the progress made in fighting HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, speakers said at the 23rd International AIDS Conference. 
  • Because of the pandemic, the conference took place online for the first time since it originated in Atlanta in 1985. 
  • Coronavirus outbreak is disrupting treatment and prevention programs, cutting access to medicines, increasing poverty and hitting those with compromised immune systems.

The COVID-19 outbreak threatens some of the hard-won progress made in the fight against HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, infectious disease experts warn.

“Now, with the fight against HIV as yet unfinished, we’ve been confronted with a new pandemic,” Peter Sands, executive director of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, said in a speech at AIDS 2020: Virtual, the online version of the 23rd International AIDS Conference earlier this month. “The direct impact of COVID-19 is scary enough. In the first six months of 2020, COVID-19 has killed over 500,000 people across the world. That’s more — maybe a third more — than the number we would have expected to die of HIV and AIDS during the same period.”

COVID-19 has already had a negative impact on the treatment and prevention of HIV, according to Sands and other speakers at the conference originally scheduled to take place in San Francisco and Oakland, but forced online by the pandemic — a first for the event. Global and local supply chains have been disrupted, prevention and treatment programs have been disrupted, poverty has increased and people living with compromised immune systems are victims of the coronavirus.

“I was preparing to come to AIDS 2020 with an ambitious and optimistic analysis of what we needed to do to meet our 2030 goals for HIV and break the back of the AIDS pandemic,” Sands said. “And then came COVID-19, and everything changed.”

The global fight against AIDS has made impressive progress since the HIV virus was first identified in 1983. The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has invested more than $85 billion to fight the HIV/AIDS pandemic — the biggest government commitment to a single disease in history and responsible for saving more than 18 million lives. The number of deaths has tumbled from a peak of 1.7 million in 2004 to 690,000 last year, according to the U.N.

The Global Fund received pledges of $14 billion to fund the fight against the three infectious diseases for the next three years at an October conference in Lyon. It was the largest amount ever raised to support the work of a multilateral health organization. The fund has long aimed to end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria by 2030. Vaccinations and screenings for HIV, measles, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases are down because of COVID-19, and this could lead to more deaths, according to Lancet Global Health.

“Social distancing measures and government lockdowns have shut down clinical trials, and interrupted access to HIV treatment and prevention medicines,” Anton Pozniak, president of the International AIDS Society, said at the conference. “We don’t yet know the full extent of the impact on HIV care. And, as a physician, I can say that we fear the impact of COVID-19 on our clinics and hospitals, of what that could mean for already vulnerable populations that we treat.”

UNAIDS released a report as the AIDS conference started, stating that global HIV targets set this year won’t be met because of the COVID-19 outbreak. The report warns that further disruptions could lead to increased mortality in Africa.

The lessons learned during the fight against AIDS, such as the importance of knowing your status and the importance of data, will help with fighting against COVID-19 easier, White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx said at the conference. The research and testing infrastructure built to treat HIV/AIDS is now helping with the new pandemic, Birx said.

“The infrastructure and expertise of the HIV movement is being deployed to contain COVID-19,” Pozniak said.