The current outbreak of novel coronavirus has prompted an upsurge of fear, stigma and virus-shaming that is all too familiar to people living with HIV. For health care providers and other front-line professionals serving people with HIV, this means not only the added burden of managing the outbreak among their patients and clients, but also the opportunity to alleviate panic and keep those they serve well-informed.
This article consolidates the most recent provider-focused information available regarding the intersection between HIV and SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus behind the COVID-19 pandemic. We'll share recently released information from U.S. health officials and other reputable sources, as well as newly published research of potential relevance to the care of people living with HIV who are affected by or concerned about novel coronavirus infection.
All sources and reference links are listed at the bottom of the article.
HIV and Novel Coronavirus: The Latest
Here are the most recent updates on HIV and the novel coronavirus, which we summarize in greater detail below:
March 20: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services posted interim COVID-19 guidance for people living with HIV.
March 18: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added an HIV-specific FAQ to its collection of novel coronavirus resources.
March 18: The New England Journal of Medicine published a study finding that the antiretroviral lopinavir/ritonavir was not an effective treatment for COVID-19.
March 17: The U.S. Health Resources & Service Administration posted an FAQ addressing numerous queries from individuals and organizations that provide services under the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program. The FAQ has been updated several times since its initial launch.
March 16: Drugmaker Johnson & Johnson announces there are no data to suggest the antiretroviral darunavir has efficacy against SARS-CoV-2.
March 11: The Journal of Medical Virology published a case study on a person living with HIV in Wuhan, China, who developed and recovered from COVID-19.
March 10: CDC health officials and researchers presented the latest data and available information regarding the novel coronavirus at CROI 2020, a major annual medical meeting that primarily features new research on HIV and other infectious diseases.
HRSA Launches Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program FAQ
UPDATE March 25: To address coronavirus-related queries from providers of Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program services, the U.S. Health Resources & Service Administration (HRSA) added a frequently asked questions page to its website on March 17.
As of March 25, the page contained answers to 33 specific questions; it has been updated at least three times since its initial launch.
Provision of HIV Care and Client Services, which includes questions regarding care center protocols and policies, "essential services" definitions, and the use of funding to support patients' basic life needs.
AIDS Drug Assistance Programs, which addresses questions about remotely refilling prescriptions, 90-day prescription refills, recertification requirements, and issues with patients' abilities to access their regular pharmacies.
Utilizing Telehealth, which tackles questions about whether telehealth can be performed outside the clinic and whether telephone calls can be considered telehealth.
Resources and Oversight, which covers questions regarding scheduled on-site HIV/AIDS Bureau visits, availability of equipment to treat COVID-19 in HIV clinics, and the legalities of Ryan White staff being assigned to COVID-19 duties.
Funding Opportunities, Reporting Requirements, and Upcoming Events, which tackles questions about previously scheduled grant submission and reporting deadlines, as well as future conference and webinar dates.
Travel Guidance, which briefly addresses the realities of travel during a public health emergency.
Grants Management, which focuses on a diverse set of questions ranging from billing/invoice logistics to a recommended course of action when an irreplaceable staff member falls ill with COVID-19.
U.S. Health Department Posts "Interim Guidance" on Coronavirus for People Living With HIV
UPDATE March 20: A detailed set of recommendations regarding coronavirus pandemic preparation and coinfection management for people living with HIV was posted to AIDSinfo, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) portal for HIV-related information.
The HHS guidance offers specific suggestions on these key issues:
Switching antiretroviral therapy: The guidance recommends delaying regimen changes due to challenges in ensuring proper monitoring and follow-up.
Appointment postponement: The guidance urges careful consideration to the importance of any in-person meetings between HIV care/service providers and people with HIV. For people who are virally suppressed and whose health is stable, the guidance recommends postponing routine care provider visits and lab tests.
Planning for isolation: The guidance offers a number of recommendations on how PLWHV can hedge against the possibility of interrupted access to antiretroviral treatment and care, including ensuring they have a 30- to 90-day supply on hand, considering delivery of medications by mail, and formulating a plan in advance between themselves and their care providers regarding what to do if they develop COVID-19 symptoms.
HIV and SARS-CoV-2 coinfection management: The guidance discusses the importance of continuing a person's antiretroviral therapy as prescribed (with no substitutions), even if they are hospitalized and intubated. It also warns against the risk of interactions between a person's current treatment regimen and any treatment received for COVID-19.
In addition, the guidance includes information for providers regarding:
Coronavirus risk factors among people with HIV, such as older age, cardiovascular disease, cigarette smoking, diabetes, hypertension, and pulmonary disease.
Currently available knowledge for HIV-positive pregnant women and HIV-positive children.
The possibility of obtaining waivers from drug providers that would allow them to prescribe a 90-day supply of medications.
The potential value of tele-health in ensuring continuation of care and triage in case of emerging illness.
The importance of holistic care, including paying attention to an HIV-positive patient's mental health and logistical challenges (e.g., access to food, transportation, and child care), and of assisting wherever possible.
CDC Publishes "What People With HIV Should Know" Coronavirus FAQ Page
UPDATE March 19: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) added an HIV-specific FAQ page to its collection of novel coronavirus resources on March 18. As of its initial publication, the page—which is explicitly written for an audience of people living with HIV (PLWHIV)—addresses eight key issues:
COVID-19 risk among PLWHIV. (In short: We aren't sure.)
COVID-19 prevention guidance. (In short: The same as everyone else, plus adhere to antiretroviral therapy.)
Extra precautions for people over 50 and those with underlying conditions. (In short: Maintain a 30-day medication supply; keep vaccinations up to date; plan for a potential two-week home isolation; establish remote social connections.)
What to do if a PLWHIV believes they may have COVID-19. (In short: Let their care provider know.)
Whether antiretrovirals can treat COVID-19. (In short: We're not sure, but don't switch regimens on a hunch.)
Potential HIV medication and PrEP shortages. (In short: There's no sign of any problems.)
Travel concerns. (In short: Follow the same guidance everyone else is following.)
Stigma concerns. (In short: Yep, that's definitely a concern.)
Published Research on HIV and Novel Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) Coinfection
At present, there is a dearth of HIV-specific scientific literature exploring any aspect of the intersection between HIV infection and the novel coronavirus (or COVID-19, the disease it causes). Even epidemiological data regarding the number of people living with HIV who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 is hard to come by.
SARS-CoV-2 testing only recently began to ramp up in the U.S., following a period of extremely limited test availability. This has thus far restricted not only an accurate count of the number of people infected, but also the accumulation of epidemiological data including COVID-19 geographical trends, hospitalization rates, and risk factors—as well as research regarding novel coronavirus transmission risks and outcomes among people living with HIV.
Case Reports of COVID-19 in HIV-Positive People
The only published case of COVID-19 development in a person living with HIV was published as a letter to the editor on March 11 in the Journal of Medical Virology. The brief case report describes a 61-year-old man with comorbid type-2 diabetes who was a heavy cigarette smoker.
Though it's not made clear within the case report, the individual appears to have been diagnosed with HIV in the course of his hospitalization and treatment for COVID-19; at diagnosis, his CD4 percentage was reportedly just 4.75%.
He was administered twice-daily lopinavir/ritonavir (Kaletra) orally for 12 days -- in an effort to treat the COVID-19, not the HIV infection. (Of note: lopinavir/ritonavir has since been found ineffective against severe SARS-CoV-2 infection.) The man recovered and was released from the hospital 13 days after his initial admission. No other information was published regarding his HIV status, relevant labs, or antiretroviral treatment situation.
HIV Antiretrovirals and SARS-CoV-2 Treatment
There is, at present, no research identifying any HIV medication as an effective treatment for COVID-19. But there's been plenty of speculation.
Darunavir (Prezista): There are no data to suggest that darunavir-based antiretroviral therapy can effectively treat COVID-19, according to a release by the drug's U.S. manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, on March 16. There are also no data regarding the single-tablet regimens of which darunavir is a part, cobicistat/darunavir [Prezcobix] and cobicistat/darunavir/emtricitabine/tenofovir alafenamide [D/C/F/TAF, Symtuza].)
Lopinavir/Ritonavir (Kaletra): Lopinavir/ritonavir offers no benefit over current standard of care in the treatment of severe SARS-CoV-2 infection, according to a 199-patient study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on March 18.
No information has been released or published regarding any other FDA-approved antiretrovirals or single-tablet regimens used in the treatment of HIV, including integrase inhibitors.
No Firm Evidence Supports Hydroxychloroquine (or Azithromycin) as COVID-19 Treatment
As NIAID director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., has publicly stated, there are no trials to support the claim that hydroxychloroquine with or without azithromycin can effectively and safely prevent or treat SARS-CoV-2 infection, or lessen the symptoms assoicated with COVID-19. The evidence regarding anti-SARS-CoV-2 activity to date has been almost entirely anecdotal, leaving open the possibility that other causes were at play in the clinical improvement of those patients.
Neither of these drugs is an antiviral, which is why there is so much skepticism around the limited reports of their success:
Hydroxychloroquine is an anti-malarial medication—and malaria is a parasitic disease.
Azithromycin is an antibiotic used commonly in the prophylaxis and treatment of bacterial pneumonia, as well as the treatment of ear infections, sinus infections, and a number of sexually transmitted infections, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, and early syphilis.
Azithromycin also has a long history of usage in the context of the HIV epidemic: It is one of the drugs prescribed prophylactically against mycobacterium avium complex (MAC) in people living with HIV. Opportunistic infection guidelines recommend the use of azithromycin to prevent disseminated MAC in people with a CD4 count below 50 unless they are virologically suppresed on antiretroviral therapy or are about to begin HIV treatment.
CDC Shares Latest HIV-Related Coronavirus Information and Guidance at CROI 2020
[Below is our original reporting for this article, which was posted on March 11.]
At the annual Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI 2020)—which was transformed at the last moment from an in-person meeting into an online event, to curtail the ongoing outbreak—John T. Brooks, M.D., a medical epidemiologist with the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), took the opportunity to remind those tuning in that stigma is one of the greatest public health dangers during an infectious disease epidemic.
“I encourage all of us to use our rich collective experience with HIV to help fight anti-COVID-19 stigma,” Brooks said.
In addition to processing the relived trauma of the early panic of HIV/AIDS, people living with HIV may need to start preparing for what will happen if this new epidemic shows up in their community, Brooks noted.
This new coronavirus is a close cousin of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome, of which there was a global outbreak in 2003). It produces a short-lived illness known as COVID-19 (short for “coronavirus disease 2019”) that manifests like the flu and typically abates after a few weeks—although it can lead to more severe symptoms and even death in some people. It first appeared in China and quickly spread to more than 100 other countries, including the United States. (Brooks pointed out that people of Chinese descent have been inappropriately targeted and stigmatized due to the novel virus’ origins in China.)
At the time this article was filed, more than half of U.S. states had reported cases of COVID-19. Large cities such as New York, San Francisco, Seattle and surrounding areas are already seeing major outbreaks, with experts predicting that the virus is almost certain to spread to the rest of the country.
During a special session at CROI 2020, Brooks gave attendees an overview of what we know about COVID-19 so far and offered specific recommendations for clinicians to convey to people living with HIV—many of whom may be considered high risk for COVID-19 acquisition due to demographic and other health factors.
“COVID-19 has spread worldwide with remarkable speed,” Brooks said. The virus appears to be highly contagious, and its symptoms are difficult to distinguish from the common flu. For that reason, many people who develop symptoms of COVID-19 may be asked to ride it out at home, he explained.
Though estimates vary, “the case fatality rate is likely somewhere between 0.5 and 3.5%,” Brooks said. “[That means] COVID-19 could be five to 35 times more deadly than seasonal influenza.”
Data so far indicate the virus is more dangerous among people with underlying health conditions, as well as those over the age of 60. Brooks pointed out that “CDC estimates that equal to or more than 50% of people with HIV are over 50 years old.”
This, paired with underlying persistent viral infection, means “all people with HIV should take precautions against this new virus,” Brooks said.
According to Brooks, all Americans should be prepared to obey “social distancing” orders from their local public health officials, which will likely include measures such as keeping children home from school, avoiding public transportation, and possibly self-isolation for days or weeks.
For people living with HIV and their providers, this means:
Ensuring at least a 30-day supply of medication at all times.
Keeping vaccinations up to date—especially pneumonia and flu vaccines.
Establishing a plan for providers and their patients to stay in touch, including telemedicine options, if either is isolated or quarantined.
Figuring out how people living with HIV can stay in touch with friends and family members using remote technology, which will help keep spirits up while isolated or quarantined.
HIV care providers are uniquely prepared for this moment. In particular, those who lived and worked through the early years of the HIV epidemic can help remind others—both patients and the public at large—that stigma is one of the greatest enemies of public health.
Providers are also in a position to reinforce the ways in which people living with HIV can take steps now to protect themselves and their loved ones from potential harm—and can do so without demonizing the people already living with, and recovering from, this novel coronavirus.