Jonathan Sacerdoti

What the fight against HIV can teach us about defeating Covid-19

(Getty images)

In the eighties, we were warned to beware an easily spread, deadly virus. The government’s ominous HIV adverts told us not to ‘die of ignorance’. Thus a generation was educated through fear how to avoid infection by practicing safer sex and avoiding contact with the blood of those who are positive. 

While those messages are still important today, HIV no longer represents the death sentence it once did. Still a life-altering and permanent disease, it can now be managed in a way that means people often live full lives with HIV, rather than die early because of it.

No successful vaccination has been developed for HIV, but other medical developments helped to change the prognosis for those who contract it. Antiretrovirals work by stopping the virus replicating in the body, allowing the immune system to repair itself and prevent further damage. For some years already, these drugs have not only been used for long-term HIV patients, but also to ‘stop the virus in its tracks’. PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) can be given to someone exposed to HIV in the previous 72 hours, to help prevent seroconversion. PREP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) can be given to anyone at risk of catching HIV through future exposure. This approach is also used for some types of bacterial meningitis, when prophylactic antibiotics are given to household contacts of a patient.

HIV no longer represents the death sentence it once did

So Boris Johnson’s announcement that Britain is aiming to fast track the development of anti-viral drugs which could be used in a similar way to fight Covid-19 is important. Many Covid vaccines have been successfully developed and widely used in record time, but these alone won’t wipe out the threat of the disease because of new variants and a massive lack of worldwide supply. Effective treatments which fight the virus at the early stages of infection, and even before it is able to infect someone who may be exposed, could become vital weapons in the war against the pandemic.

Covid-19 is a very different virus from HIV.

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