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With Covid-19, “we could have practically 150,000 more deaths from AIDS” in the world, warns the president of Sidaction

With the decline in screening and prevention over the past year, “We could have 300,000 more cases of infection linked to Covid-19 and almost 150,000 more deaths from AIDS” in the world, alerted Friday March 26 on franceinfo Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, president of Sidaction. The 2021 edition of the fundraising campaign for the fight against HIV begins on Friday and ends on Sunday. In France, “it is estimated that there were 650,000 fewer screenings from March 2020”, she specifies. But the Covid-19 could also allow progress: an RNA vaccine is now under study, a solution “never considered for HIV”, indicates the virologist, winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine for her work on the AIDS virus.

franceinfo: Is there an urgent need today to relaunch the fight against AIDS?

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi: Absolutely. There has been an emergency for over a year now. Obviously, AIDS is no longer in the front of the screen and we have concerns, with models from UNAIDS, for example, who suggest that we could have 300,000 more cases of infection linked to Covid-19 and almost 150,000 more deaths from AIDS linked to Covid, with difficulties for people to access screening, access treatment and access prevention. There are different reasons. One of them is because some people are afraid to go to the health services to get tested, afraid of catching the Covid. There are also difficulties in certain countries of supplying screening tools, but also prevention tools. There is also a decrease in pre-exposure prophylaxis. All this effectively creates setbacks in terms of screening, setbacks in terms of prevention and care.

Is this observation that you also make in France?

Yes, it is also made in France. To give you an idea, it is estimated that there were 650,000 fewer screenings from March 2020, in France, so this is a real concern. And this is also true for PrEP, pre-exposure prophylaxis, there was a decrease in use during this period.

One in four young people think that AIDS can be caught by kissing. Can we say that the public’s knowledge of AIDS is also declining?

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For several years, there has been a clear setback in the perception and knowledge vis-à-vis HIV infection. Unfortunately, more than 30% of young people consider themselves to be poorly informed about this HIV infection and about AIDS. In new cases of infection in France, 13% are among young people. All this is nevertheless extremely worrying.

With AIDS, we have understood over the years that it is better to explain the risks rather than frighten them. Should we do the same with Covid-19?

Completely. I think fear never changed the problem. You have to pass correct information. We have seen it with the Covid, unfortunately there has been false information. The general public no longer knows where it is. These are things that we have also seen for HIV. This is a huge problem and I think we have to involve the citizens a little more, the associations, in order to send the right messages to the citizens.

It took a year to find several vaccines against Covid, while more than 30 years after the discovery of HIV, we do not yet have one. Is it just a question of international mobilization and money?

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No, not only. For HIV, there was also a lot of mobilization and a lot of money for the development of a vaccine. for now, we still haven’t. But here we are faced with two completely different viruses. The difficulties encountered in developing an HIV vaccine have nothing to do with developing a vaccine against Sars-Cov2. The only thing that can be mentioned is that an RNA vaccine had never been considered for HIV and that it is now started with the Moderna laboratory. I think they’re not going to be the only ones who want to develop RNA vaccines for HIV. Is this going to work? It is not sure at all. HIV is, however, a vastly different virus.

More generally, can the progress of science against Covid also be used against HIV?

Absolutely. I would say it’s both ways. It can be used for HIV, and HIV can also be used for Covid. For example, in the infection with the coronavirus there is a lot of inflammation. However, this is something that we, in HIV, can also see, since even in patients on antiretroviral treatment, there remains a residual inflammation that is linked precisely to the fact that patients cannot stop their treatment and that the virus remains in the body. So, with these inflammations that we see in HIV infection and that we see in Covid, we learn from each other. It is important to develop research in this area, to talk to each other and to work together as we have been able to do in the field of HIV.

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