COVID-19 pandemic may cause an increase in new infections and deaths from HIV/AIDS and disrupt preventive measures, said UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima in in the pre-recorded interview that aired on World AIDS Day.
“We do expect that in the coming years, we might see more deaths, we might see more new infections as a result of these disruptions,” she said.
Fewer people opted to be tested and some dropped out of treatment because of long lines at clinics or other public safety measures that impeded access to prevention measures, during the first pandemic phase in particular, Byanyima, who is also United Nations under-secretary-general, said.
Vaccine nationalism, in which rich countries buy up vaccine supplies and poor nations are left waiting, has been “among the saddest part of where we are,” Byanyima said.
Just over 7% of Africa’s population has been fully vaccinated, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford.
“It is no coincidence to most of us that it arose in Sub Saharan Africa, where you have a lot of under-diagnosed HIV infections, or people who are immunocompromised with it,” said John Moore, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, in a separate interview.
Moore said people who are immunocompromised cannot clear the infection as quickly as those with healthy immune systems, and that a suboptimal immune response can allow the virus to keep mutating.
Research shows that people with HIV are no more likely than others to become infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, but that once infected, they are at much higher risk of severe illness, Byanyima said.
“That is why for developing countries with a high burden of HIV, this is critical,” she said of the access to COVID-19 vaccines.