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01 Dec 2022

The impact of COVID-19 on HIV research

While the last almost three years have been centred on the global COVID-19 pandemic, we mustn’t forget that the world has been fighting another pandemic for the past four decades.

University of Melbourne’s Professor Sharon Lewin, Director of the Doherty Institute, leader in research for an HIV cure and President of the International AIDS Society (IAS), dubbed HIV “the biggest pandemic the world has ever seen.”

“Because of its size, scale and gravity a whole generation of people have been trained in both high-income and low-income countries as virologists, immunologists and clinical trials and these disciplines have strengthened over the last 40 years,” Professor Lewin says.

Understandably, the HIV community and researchers have been worried about the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on HIV.

But despite the challenges, Professor Lewin is positive about the opportunities that the last three years have created for HIV.

“I like to take a more optimistic view. I think we should focus on the unprecedented investments in public health we have seen across the globe over the past two-plus years. Let us capitalise on the global surge in awareness around infectious diseases and their impact on human rights,” Professor Lewin says.

Professor Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, an eminent HIV researcher recipient of a Nobel Prize for discovering HIV in 1981, concurs.

“I think we can work with each other, together we can work on clinical trial platforms, for example, to better understand the pathogenesis of both HIV persistence on antiretroviral therapy (ART) and Long Covid,” Professor Barré-Sinoussi says.

“This could lead to multidisciplinary science, innovation and drug discovery, as well as key international collaborations.

“The high level of scientific innovation applied to COVID-19 – mRNA vaccines, digital health & artificial intelligence, for example – might also be very useful for HIV in the future.”

Professor Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (left) and Professor Sharon Lewin (right)
Professor Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (left) and Professor Sharon Lewin (right)

“Antibodies now being used for COVID-19 treatment were first developed for HIV, but we have learned so much through COVID-19 about manufacturing and ways of delivering antibodies. And finally, the infrastructure in place to diagnose and test for COVID=19 can also be used for HIV,” Professor Lewin says.

“Once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, all of this science will definitely have a big impact on the progress of HIV.”

Public health systems across the globe have had to adapt and innovate. As a result, most of the countries have adopted, at least partially, differentiated service delivery (a responsive, client-centred approach that simplifies and adapts HIV services), along with innovative approaches for testing – we've seen a scaling up of self-testing in 98 countries and routinely implemented in 52 countries. In addition, teleconsultation and multi-month dispensing of ART, that were introduced during COVid-19, will benefit HIV care in the long term.

“These new strategies, adopted from our time facing COVID-19, go a long way in strengthening care for the HIV community,” Professor Lewin says.

In an article published in the journal BMJ Global Health, Professor Lewin and colleagues explore the topic further, looking at the COVID-19-related innovations that are relevant and have potential value for the HIV response moving forward. (DOI 10.1136/bmjgh-2022-010854)