Coronavirus is threatening to blow us even more off track, UNAIDS chief said. (Representational)
Millions have died needlessly from AIDS-related causes due to lack of access to existing therapies, the UNAIDS chief said, calling for a fairer approach to tackling the coronavirus pandemic.
Winnie Byanyima recalls with anguish how two decades ago in her hometown in Uganda, she and others struggled to scrape together funds to help a close friend, who was suffering from HIV, to obtain the antiretroviral treatments she needed.
“At that time it was about $800 a month… Her salary was less than $100 a month,” Byanyima told AFP in an interview, describing how her friend Jane would sometimes pull together enough for one month of treatment, only to be forced to skip the next one.
“She died six months before the price came down from $10,000 a year to $100 a year.”
Byanyima, 61, took the reins nearly a year ago at UNAIDS, the Geneva-based Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS.
Speaking as her organisation launched its annual report, Byanyima hailed the “tremendous progress” in the fight against HIV/AIDS since the pandemic began four decades ago, including more than halving annual deaths from the peak of 1.7 million in 2004 to 690,000 last year.
But she decried that since the beginning, the development of treatments and the ongoing search for a vaccine had largely been left to the private sector.
She called for a dramatic shift in tactics as the world faces the towering challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She urged countries to “learn from the bad experience from AIDS, when medicines were found, but it took 10 years before people in our region in Africa could benefit.”
“If you count in terms of 10 years how many lives were lost, we’re talking of millions.”
To avoid a similar scenario with the novel coronavirus, UNAIDS has been among the most vocal proponents for the development of a “people’s vaccine”, and for equitable and fair access to any treatments found.
“This time, let us have a common pool,” Byanyima said.
The World Health Organization launched a global initiative in April to speed up the development and production of COVID-19 tests, vaccines and treatments, and to ensure fair access.
Byanyima stressed the need to make sure that every region and every country be given access to buy vaccines and treatments at an affordable price and that they “distribute to people for free”, serving health workers and the most vulnerable people first.
“It can’t be that (the) wealthy come and book out supplies and everybody else dies waiting while those who are not at risk but happen to be rich are vaccinated,” she said.
She condemned reports that the United States and some European countries were booking out supplies of one of the most advanced candidate vaccines, being developed by Astra Zeneca and Oxford University.
Washington has also announced that it has bought up more than 90 percent of the global stock of the anti-viral drug remdesivir to treat COVID-19.
“This is not fair. This virus is hitting everybody,” Byanyima said. “We need global solutions… Not a me-first solution.”
The rush to find vaccines and treatments against COVID-19, in which governments are pumping billions of dollars into research projects, exposes the “failure” of the old model of letting pharmaceutical companies’ drive for profits lead the way on medical research and development, Byanyima said.
And changing the model to address the coronavirus crisis could have far-reaching benefits, including perhaps speeding up a search for an HIV vaccine, she said.
“If we can align the world behind a new model for developing and distributing health technologies, definitely this will impact solutions for HIV as well as for others,” she said.
Byanyima pointed to a large number of diseases affecting poor countries that have no treatments because companies have determined that investing in their development would not pay off financially.
“Lives have to come before profits,” she said.
The coronavirus pandemic, meanwhile, risks significantly worsening the global HIV/AIDS situation.
Byanyima warned that the world was “already off track” and would miss the target of bringing AIDS-related deaths below 500,000 by this year, while more than 12.5 million of the 38 million people living with HIV are still not receiving treatment.
“Coronavirus is threatening to blow us even more off track,” she said, pointing to her agency’s warning that disruption of antiretroviral therapy could lead to more than 500,000 extra deaths in Africa alone.
And gains against mother-to-child transmission could be set back 10 years.
This is “totally unacceptable,” she said.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)