More than 70 countries at risk of running out of HIV drugs due to coronavirus pandemic, WHO says


File Photo: Patients, some HIV-positive, and their relatives protest for the lack of medicines and medical supplies in hospitals, in front of the Health Ministry in Caracas on April 18, 2018.

Luis Robayo | AFP | Getty Images

More than 70 countries warned they are at risk of running out of HIV medication due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a survey conducted by the World Health Organization.

Twenty-four countries said they have a “critically low” stock of antiretroviral medicine, or ARVs, largely used as a therapy to treat HIV, or have seen a disruption in their supply chain as a result of the pandemic, the WHO said. 

“The findings of this survey are deeply concerning,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement. “Countries and their development partners must do all they can to ensure that people who need HIV treatment continue to access it. We cannot let the COVID-19 pandemic undo the hard-won gains in the global response to this disease.”

In May, the WHO and the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS estimated that AIDS-related deaths in sub-Saharan African could double due to a six-month disruption of access to antiretroviral medication. That estimate applied only through 2020. While there’s no cure for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, antiretroviral medication is proven to control the virus and prevent infection to others. 

The closure of land and air transportation, failure of suppliers to deliver the medication and limited access to health services were among the causes of disruption cited in the WHO survey. More than 25 million people received treatment with antiretroviral drugs in 2019, the WHO said, adding that it expects to miss 2020 targets.

On Saturday, the WHO announced the discontinuation of its trial of the HIV drugs lopinavir and ritonavir as a combined treatment for hospitalized Covid-19 patients. Interim results showed the cocktail of drugs “produce little or no reduction in the mortality” among Covid-19 patients. Both drugs are regularly used in ARVs.

The findings of the WHO’s survey are the latest example of how the coronavirus, which has infected roughly 11.5 million people and killed at least 534,825 people around the world, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, is exacerbating pre-existing crises. 

In May, Stop TB Partnership published a study that said millions of people around the world could develop tuberculosis due to the lockdown measures prompted by the coronavirus. The study estimated 6.3 million people could develop TB as cases go undiagnosed and untreated between now and 2025, with 1.4 million people predicted to die during this time.

“This situation makes me sick, because (it) is totally avoidable,” Lucica Ditiu, executive director of the Stop TB Partnership, said via email at the time. “We just need to keep in mind that TB, as well as other diseases, keep affecting and killing people every single day, not just Covid-19.”

In the U.S., doctors have reported worrying trends that patients who need procedures or necessary care are avoiding hospitals due to the pandemic. Delayed or foregone care could lead to significant health complications down the road. 

And in April, the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian non-governmental organization, warned of a “double emergency” in vulnerable countries as Covid-19 exacerbates existing humanitarian crises, including political and economic instability.

— CNBC’s Sam Meredith and Emma Newburger contributed to this report.



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