HIV organizations offer advice on coronavirus as scientists test HIV drugs as possible cure

HIV organizations have issued new advice to people living with HIV on what to do about coronavirus.

It comes as scientists test some HIV drugs alongside a range of other existing drugs to fight COVID-19.

Overall organizations are advising that people with HIV who are otherwise healthy need not panic. Instead, they should follow advice for everyone else to avoid getting and spreading COVID-19.

Are HIV positive people at greater risk of COVID-19?

HIV organizations appear to agree that HIV positive people are not necessarily at greater risk.

The UK’s Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) says:

‘There’s currently no evidence that people living with HIV are any more likely to catch COVID-19 than anyone else. You should follow the advice being given to the general population. 

‘If you are on treatment, with an undetectable viral load and a good CD4 count (eg over 400), then there should be no greater risk. 

‘If you’re living with HIV and do not have an undetectable viral load or have a low CD4 count, it will be more important to avoid situations where you may get infected if the virus becomes more widespread.’

However, some HIV positive people are more likely to suffer from other health conditions. And anyone who has cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic respiratory disease, hypertension, asthma and diabetes appears to be at greater risk from coronavirus.

Stick to general advise and wash your hands

Organizations including THT and the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) offer this general advice:

  • Like everyone, wash your hands more regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when you cough or sneeze.
  • Put any used tissues into the bin immediately.
  • Avoid touching your face, particularly your nose, mouth and eyes.
  • Try to avoid close contact with people who are unwell.
  • If you are unwell, avoid contact with others (touching, kissing, hugging and other intimate contact) and check the latest official advice on seeing a doctor or self-isolating.
  • Use hand-sanitizer if it is not possible to wash your hands.

In addition, they ask people who have recently returned from a high risk area to stay indoors and avoid contact with others.

AFAO adds: ‘While there is usually no need to stock-pile shop-bought medicines like paracetamol and ibuprofen, If you are taking medication, it’s a good idea to make sure you have at least one month’s supply.

‘This is because you may need to stay at home if you feel unwell. Talk with your doctor if you need extra scripts.

‘If you are taking PrEP (for HIV prevention) and are concerned about maintaining your three-monthly doctor’s appointments, talk to your doctor for more options.’

And AFAO also advises people who are HIV positive to get a regular flu jab. It will become available in Australia in April.

The flu jab will not protect you from COVID-19 which is a very different virus.

But AFAO says: ‘It is good to avoid having both viruses together, or one after the other. The flu vaccine provides good protection against influenza and is recommended each year for all people living with HIV.’

Promising results but no proof

Meanwhile, in the US, amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, has reported on the attempts to use HIV drugs against COVID-19.

Researchers have been trialling various drugs in the hopes that something already on the market may help fight the coronavirus.

amfAR says: ‘Physicians in Thailand and Japan have reported using the antiretroviral drugs lopinavir and ritonavir to fight the novel coronavirus, with apparent success.

‘Thai doctors gave the two HIV drugs in combination with a large dose of the flu drug oseltamivir to a Chinese coronavirus patient. She tested negative for the coronavirus within two days.

‘In Japan, a patient from Wuhan, China – the epicenter of the epidemic – was treated with just the two HIV drugs. Despite some trouble breathing, the patient stabilized after treatment, and her fever subsided within five days of being admitted.’

Meanwhile China is also testing the safety and effectiveness of lopinavir and ritonavir in treating coronavirus. And in Hong Kong researchers are interested in using the HIV drugs in combination with immune-enhancing interferon.

Moreover, the scientists also note that in 2004, people with SARS, a related coronavirus, seemed to benefit from HIV drugs.

No evidence HIV drugs work yet

However, public health experts caution they need to do much more testing before concluding HIV drugs can fight COVID-19.

And they are looking at other options including pharmaceutical company Gilead’s drug, Remdesivir. It was designed to fight Ebola but didn’t work. However, it may be effective against coronavirus.

Public health experts caution they need to do more tests before they will know if HIV drugs can effectively treat the coronavirus.

So far, you should remember there is no firm evidence that HIV drugs treat COVID-19. Likewise, there is no evidence that being on anti-viral medication for HIV (including PrEP), hepatitis C or hepatitis B, protects you from coronavirus.

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