Innovation and investment needed to protect valuable HIV gains against COVID19

As the world continues to fight the COVID19 pandemic, we must remember that we haven’t finished the fight against the last major pandemic to hit humanity: HIV.

As of 2019, there were 38 million people living with HIV across the globe. In the Asia Pacific region, there were 5.8 million people living with HIV, and new infections were on the rise in some of Australia’s closest neighbours such as the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. Despite these numbers, substantial progress has been made towards the goal of ending the HIV epidemic by 2030 thanks to innovations in treatment, testing and prevention.

Yet COVID19 threatens to reverse the extraordinary gains made over the past two decades. Bimonthly Global Fund surveys in more than 100 countries show that due to lockdowns, restrictions on movement, economic fallout, and the redirection of resources, up to 75% of lifesaving HIV prevention and treatment programs have been moderately to seriously disrupted for the majority of 2020.

Poor adherence to treatments is a major challenge in the fight against HIV. When medicines are taken incorrectly, their effectiveness to surpress the virus is compromised, resulting in increased numbers of HIV infections and HIV-related morbidity and mortality. It also helps infectious microbes grow resistant to the drugs used to treat them.

A male patient is being tested for HIV at MAP Foundation, Health Testing Center, Chiang Mai / Thailand. Credit: Jonas Gratzer

In response, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria moved rapidly to introduce and support new approaches across the region, like multi-month dispensing of key medicines, telehealth and self-testing.

Long-acting treatment formulations that can last weeks or months are also being fast-tracked by Unitaid, who has committed to speeding up the long-acting technology pipeline to meet the needs of lower-resource countries. Unitaid is also working to ensure that long-acting medicines are introduced more quickly and remain available.

Thanks to the continued support and funding from the Global Fund, Unitaid, governments, communities and health partners to keep HIV services operating during the challenges of the COVID19 pandemic, we may have avoided the immediate worst-case scenario – but the long-term impact on the ending HIV transmission and preventable deaths could be significant. We must work jointly to regain lost ground and get back on track to end the HIV epidemic by 2030.

Global solidarity is needed now more than ever.