Lessons from the fight against AIDS help fight Covid-19

The vaccines developed against Covid-19 owe a lot to HIV research.


Text by: Lou Roméo Follow

7 mins

Communication, vaccines, political leadership ... The lessons of AIDS have greatly served the fight against Covid-19.

And the advances made in the field of vaccines are opening up prospects for research against HIV.

On the occasion of the 40 years of AIDS, after the first alert launched by the Atlanta Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), back on the lessons learned from one pandemic to another.


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The contribution of research against HIV has played a central role in the rapid implementation of vaccines against SARS-Cov-

2", affirms immunologist and vaccinologist Jean-Daniel Lelièvre.

Like many of his colleagues, this AIDS specialist has switched to research against Covid-19.

And for him, the transfer of experience is obvious between the two pathologies, even if it should be remembered that they remain very different.


We are cured of Covid, we cannot cure AIDS, and HIV mutates much more than SARS-Cov-

2,” he emphasizes.

It is therefore easier to produce a vaccine against SARS-Cov-

than against HIV.

The speed of vaccine implementation owes a lot to this, especially since coronaviruses were already known.


But Covid-19 vaccines have also greatly benefited from advances in HIV research. “ 

The vaccine platforms used by vaccines against Covid-19 have been developed to fight HIV,”

explains Jean Daniel Lelièvre.

We have been working on it for several years, in order to move faster in the development of vaccines. This new technique makes it possible to introduce a piece of the genetic code of the virus into a viral vector, as for the AstraZeneca or Jansen vaccine, or into a messenger RNA, as for the Pfizer. This makes it easier to produce the proteins that induce an immune response, directly in the body, and very quickly

. "

Already known to vaccine specialists, the very large-scale use of these vaccine platforms against Covid-19 has proven

their effectiveness

, and therefore opens up new perspectives for research against HIV.


All the more so

, adds Jean Daniel Lelièvre,

as this new pandemic once again underlines the absolute necessity of having vaccines to really fight against diseases, and not to limit oneself to treatment alone.


Go closer to the communities

Outside the laboratories, the lessons of AIDS have also served a lot in the management of the pandemic in the field. " 

The fight against HIV has made a significant contribution to the fight against Covid-19," says

Florence Thune, CEO of Sidaction. 

This new pandemic has reinforced our certainties


it is fundamental to develop actions in the field and to get as close as possible to the populations concerned.


During the first confinement in France, for example, people with chronic illnesses - such as AIDS - had the right to go to the pharmacy to renew their treatment even if their prescription had expired.

But many did not know.

Aware of the problem, the associations carried out information work and thus avoided the aggravation of pathologies.

RFI Savoirs:

AIDS: the story of an epidemic, in an infographic


One of the lessons of AIDS

, explains Florence Thune

, is that we should not think that the messages delivered at the national level are necessarily understood by everyone

AIDS had already highlighted territorial inequalities in access to care, and the Covid has further underscored this observation.


The experience of associations against AIDS has also made it possible to fight against discrimination. " 

People of Asian origin were targeted at the start of the pandemic


said Florence Thune, "

just as homosexuals had been


for AIDS


Our experience has shown us the essential role of the field, associations and community actors in providing the right information, fighting against the false ideas and conspiracy theories that develop in this type of context.


It is therefore the experience developed by activists and associations in the fight against HIV that allowed them to be particularly responsive when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out.

Onusida thus noted

in a


release dated June 3, 2021

 the effectiveness of the measures developed by certain “ 

very efficient

 ” countries to stop pandemics, whether caused by HIV or by the coronavirus.

Rapid political reactions

UNAIDS Executive Director Karagwa Byanyima praised the “ 

funding […], the genuine involvement of communities

, [the] rights-based

approaches […], as well as the use of scientific data to guide them. targeted strategies,


turned the tide of the epidemic and saved lives. These elements are invaluable in preparing for pandemics and in responding to HIV, Covid-19 and many other diseases.


The lessons learned from the HIV pandemic have thus been translated into political terms on the African continent, observes Fred Eboko, political scientist specializing in public health policies, representative in Côte d'Ivoire of the Institute for Research for Development (IRD ).

The majority of African political and health decision-makers reacted early against Covid-19, often by anticipating more than the countries of the North," he



Their speed of decision-making is linked to their experience with the HIV and Ebola epidemics.


Read also: 

Covid-19: WHO points to the difficulties of vaccination in Africa

A coolness also shared according to him by the nursing staff: " 

despite the lack of means and deplorable working conditions, and with a few exceptions, the carers have shown themselves to be seasoned in the face of Covid-19, they have not given in panic, and this is no doubt thanks to the previous epidemics they have faced



Getting out of the "logic of donations"

But the comparison between the two epidemics remains difficult, since the continent was only slightly affected by the Covid when it was the first victim of HIV. “ 

From one pandemic to another, what comes back is the fragility of the health systems in the various African countries,

” he nevertheless emphasizes.

In forty years, we have made very little progress on this point. If the



[initiative aimed at ensuring equitable access to vaccination against Covid-19 in 200 countries] is

inspired by what has been developed against AIDS by the Global Fund, with access to subsidized drugs, Africa continues to need massive investments in its various health systems.


To consult:

Vaccines at cost price for poor countries?

This does not solve everything

Florence Thune does not say anything else: “ 

Thanks to the relentless mobilization of activists during the 2000s, the pharmaceutical industries have agreed to lower the prices of AIDS treatments and to lift certain patents so that the poorest countries can have them. access.

But you have to start fighting again for each new treatment.

We remain on a logic of donations, alms, without transferring technologies, it is a short-term logic.

Until we move forward on the idea of ​​universal health coverage, epidemics will ask the same questions every time.


To read also: Anti-Covid-19 vaccines: why the laboratories are standing up against the lifting of patents


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