LAHORE: Whereas COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated many inequalities worldwide, the IAS 2021 has put moral obligation upon rich countries to ensure in real time availability of vaccines to low and middle-income countries coping with the challenges of accessibility.
“If the world is dealing with a pandemic involving everyone and anyone, the common enemy is the virus, and not the people one’s having disagreement with. The global pandemic requires a global response, and therefore calls upon the entire world to pull together in a synergistic way to address a global pandemic,” says Dr Anthony Fauci, Director National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the US National Institutes of Health, while speaking Sunday at a panel discussion titled “From pandemic to pandemic” at opening session of IAS 2021– the 11th IAS Conference on HIV Science – virtually convened by International AIDS Society. Dr Eckart von Hirschhausen from Germany moderated the session.
The Federal Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, in her opening remarks, said the infectious diseases posed global challenges, and therefore the fight against these diseases is only conceivable in the form of worldwide cooperation.
“This cooperation can only succeed when scientists and researchers communicate with one another freely and continuously. During the COVID-19 pandemic, international cooperation has enabled multiple effective vaccines to be developed in record time. The countries of this world must learn from one another,” she added.
“However, in the shadow of this pandemic, we have also witnessed the achievements made in the fight against HIV that have slipped from our grasp. The sexual violence has increased which in turn has led to an increase in HIV infection rates. AIDS must not be allowed to fade into the background due to COVID-19,” she added.
In the panel discussion, leading experts discussed the impact of COVID-19 disruptions on HIV and how the HIV response can seize the momentum generated by COVID-19.
Whereas decades of investment and research in HIV has played a major role in the development of COVID-19 vaccine, Dr Fauci said, the pandemic has also opened doors to new possibilities for HIV science and service delivery. “I am very optimistic because US President Joe Biden makes his policy very clear to follow science,” he added.
Dr Hendrik Streeck from Institute of Virology and HIV Research, Germany, and Conference Co-Chair (Local) said the COVID-19 pandemic posed catastrophic impact to so many, and also perpetuated collateral damages in health, economic and social inequalities that put many in precarious situations. It still poses significant challenges for global population, particularly those living with HIV. New HIV infections have gone undetected and life-saving drugs have not been distributed. UNAIDS programmes and activities of joint partners were interrupted or could not be implemented.
He said political will and scientific effort have been enormous towards the goal of ending the COVID-19 pandemic. There are eight licensed vaccines and over 30 clinical trials are in phase III within months of COVID-19 pandemic, yet there are only 8 HIV vaccines that have entered phase III trial even after 40 years since first AIDS case was detected. “While HIV cannot be compared to SARS-CoV2 in structure and complexity, one point is clear: with political will, we can achieve more in the fight against HIV and AIDS. We have the means and the opportunity to do it,” he added.
Prof Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman, IAS president and IAS 2021 Conference Co-Chair (International) said the world has lost nearly 35 million people to AIDS since the first reported cases of the disease 40 years ago.
“A positive HIV test no longer means a death sentence, thanks to scientific inquiry that has shed light on HIV and AIDS in the last 40 years. A mother living with HIV can give birth without passing it on to her child, and an undetectable viral load is non-transmittable between partners. Each year, our treatment and prevention efforts improve. And each year, we continue to unlock the mysteries of how HIV interacts with the human body,” she said, adding that the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has leveraged HIV science to advance with unprecedented speed.
Dr Soumya Swaminathan from India, WHO’s first chief scientist, Switzerland, says the inequity in distribution of vaccines continues to be extremely concerning. “It is really important that people with HIV are prioritised in vaccination programmes as they have already suffered the same inequality in HIV medicines. “In our fight against COVID-19 pandemic, we must make sure that we don’t take our focus away from diseases like HIV and TB as such patients do not enjoy the same social protection as others do,” she added. In the development of any tool, including vaccines, we must consider access from the start.
Yvette Raphael, executive director of Advocates for the Prevention of HIV in South Africa, expressed disappointment over government’s response in the midst of two pandemics and rued mistake not to proactively engage in global response to HIV and COVID19 pandemics.
“I carry three burdens: Being black, being poor, and being a woman. I soon learned that this burden would follow me for as long as I lived,” she regretted, emphasising to ensure third world countries are not left behind. “You cannot say you are developed when your humanity is not developed. With political will, we can end both pandemics,” she added.
Jens Spahn, Federal Minister for Health, Germany, said it has been learnt from HIV that a multilateral response is the way to get through a pandemic. “No one is safe until everyone is safe. It is in our own national interest to provide COVID-19 vaccines to the world,” he added.
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