COVID-19 causes major interruption in global HIV progress


From testing to treatment, Global Fund HIV services have been hampered by COVID-19. “We’ve been set back by COVID but we’ve seen remarkable resilience, a lot of innovation and creativity,” Siobhan Crowley MD, head of HIV at the Global Fund, said in an interview.

“If you consider that 21.9 million people are getting antiretrovirals at this point through the Global Fund, I think that needs to be appreciated. Ten years ago, that wouldn’t have been the case; all of those people would have disappeared into the ethers,” she said.

Through close partnerships with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and other Western countries and organizations, the Global Fund has invested $22.7 billion in programs to prevent and treat HIV and AIDS, and $3.8 billion in tuberculosis (TB)/HIV programs, according to the organization’s 2021 Results Report.

But the report also underscores the significant effect that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on funded countries’ progress toward achieving renewed 90-90-90 targets for HIV testing/diagnosis, treatment, and viral suppression by 2030.

The setbacks have been challenging and have touched nearly every service from prevention to treatment. According to the report, between 2019 and 2020:

  • Voluntary male circumcision declined by 27%.
  • Numbers reached by HIV prevention programs fell by 11%.
  • 4.5% fewer mothers received medications to prevent HIV transmission to their babies.
  • HIV testing services, including initiation, decreased by 22%.

The numbers tell only a part of the story, according to Dr. Crowley.

“We put in place an emergency mechanism to make funds available for countries to do everything except vaccines in support of COVID,” Dr. Crowley explained. (As of August 2021, these funds had been allocated to 107 countries and 16 multicountry programs.)

Countries were advised that they could use the emergency funds three different ways: 1) for COVID-specific purposes (e.g., diagnostics, oxygen, personal protective equipment; 2) to support mitigation strategies geared toward protecting existing HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria programs and getting them back on track; and 3) for so-called “health system fixes,” such as investing in data systems to track COVID, HIV, and other core diseases, as well as the community workforce.

With regard to HIV, each country supported by the Global Fund was asked to ensure that multimonth (3-6 months) dispensing was implemented and/or accelerated so that patients could avoid congested facilities, and, wherever possible, that drugs were delivered or accessed outside the facility. One example of the success of this effort was found in South Africa, where the number of people on antiretrovirals increased almost threefold, from 1.2 million to 4.2 million people.

Countries also were asked to adapt HIV testing procedures by, for example, moving organized testing out of the facilities and into neighborhoods to meet people where they are. Rapid diagnostic testing and triage care linkage using technologies such as WhatsApp were the result, as were opportunities for home testing which, Dr. Crowley noted, remains a critical component of the overall strategy.

“The self-test is important for two reasons, not just because you are trying to find people with HIV, but also, when people know that they’re negative, they know what they can or should do to stay negative,” she said. “It’s quite a powerful motivator.”

Self-testing might also help countries motivate the 6 million people who know that they have HIV but are not on treatment. But there are still 4.1 million residing in these countries who aren’t aware that they are infected, according to the report. This figure is especially troubling, considering that some may also be harboring TB coinfections, including multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB).


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