HIV/AIDS, COVID-19 & Déjà Vu
AIDS2020: Virtual to Address the COVID-19 Pandemic
by Hank Trout

Dr. Monica Gandhi. Photo courtesy UCSF

Many of us who lived through the early days of the AIDS pandemic have experienced a sense of déjà vu when dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Triggered by fears of contracting or unknowingly transmitting the coronavirus, the exponentially rising death toll, the misinformation and fear-mongering, and the inadequate, incompetent response of our government, many of us have felt that we’re living through a movie that we’ve seen before.

That sense of déjà vu is shared by many in the medical community. Many of the world’s most visible leaders responding to COVID-19 (Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, for example) were also on the front lines of the HIV/AIDS crisis that emerged nearly forty years ago.

One of those medical professionals who has earned her stripes in both battles is Monica Gandhi, MD, MPH. Dr. Gandhi is a Professor of Medicine and Associate Division Chief of the Division of HIV, Infectious Diseases, and Global Medicine at UCSF/San Francisco General Hospital. She also serves as the medical director of the HIV clinic at SFGH (“Ward 86”) and was instrumental in implementing the Golden Compass program at SFGH for long-term survivors [A&U, July 2018]. She is also one of the organizers of the AIDS2020: Virtual conference. Dr. Gandhi spoke with A&U about plans for the IAS conference to address COVID-19.

Dr. Gandhi asserts that lessons learned in combatting HIV/AIDS will help medical professionals deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. “With HIV,” she said, “we learned the importance of bringing patients and doctors and the community together to fight the virus. We learned that confronting a viral pandemic also means confronting major disparities that inhibit adequate healthcare in marginalized communities, such as poverty and structural racism. Our work on COVID-19 will progress more quickly because of the things we learned from the AIDS pandemic.”

HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 behave differently as viruses, of course. Dr. Gandhi pointed out that, for one thing, HIV actually attaches to the chromosomes in other cells and causes (at this time) a life-long chronic disease that is manageable but, thus far, incurable. The coronavirus operates differently and wreaks havoc much faster, but once you’ve survived COVID-19, it’s gone, it’s done. Another difference is the means of transmission. Unlike HIV, which is transmitted primarily through unprotected sex and intravenous drug injection, the coronavirus is transmitted primarily through airborne contact with the virus. Dr. Gandhi said that medical professionals were shocked at the ease and speed with which the coronavirus spreads. “It’s unlike any other respiratory disease we’ve seen. With SARS some years ago, there were only 8,100 cases recorded. With the coronavirus, we’ve already seen some 10 million infections. One of the reasons is, people can carry and transmit the virus even when they have no symptoms of COVID-19. That was very surprising.”

The two pandemics do, however, present parallels: disjointed public policy, intense political divide, enduring stigma, widespread misinformation, and a disproportionate impact on vulnerable populations caused by structural disparities in public health. Dr. Gandhi said the politicization of COVID-19 has made it unnecessarily difficult to deal with the pandemic. “This politicization of wearing masks is very destructive. Equating being told to wear a mask in public with a tyrannical loss of freedom is not only wrong-headed, it’s dangerous. It makes containing the pandemic much harder. And it’s a uniquely American thing——it’s not happening in other countries.”

Recognizing the intersectionality of the HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 pandemics, and the similar patterns that the two pandemics revealed, the organizers of AIDS2020: Virtual have dedicated the last day of the conference (July 10) to the world’s first conference on COVID-19. Along with Dr. Gandhi, organizers of the COVID-19 conference are co-chairs Anton Pozniak, MD, FRCP, Consultant Physician and Senior Lecturer at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, Executive Director of HIV Research and Director of HIV Services, President of the International AIDS Society, and co-author of a three-phase plan for societal return to normal in the time of COVID-19; and Cynthia Carey-Grant, former Executive Director of Women Organized to Respond to Life-Threatening Diseases (WORLD). Following plenary remarks by Drs. Fauci and Birx, the conference will address not only scientific insights into the viruses themselves but also the relationships between these pandemics and climate change, food insecurity, and the systemic impediments to research and treatment of both viruses.

Presentations at the IAS COVID-19 conference will include:

“Making Sense of the Science” with Drs. Fauci and Birx as well as Professor Salim Abdool Karim of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA);

“The Impact of COVID-19 Beyond Health”; “Impact of COVID-19 in the Health Sector”;

“Country Policies and Practices: Different Pathways and Similar Intentions”; and

“Preparing for Tomorrow,” with Bill Gates of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

There wlll also be on-demand abstract sessions available on topics ranging from the basic science of virology to the social, economic, political, human rights impacts of the pandemic and the response.

The COVID-19 conference is free to all participants. Registration is required, but there is no fee. If you have already registered for AIDS 2020: Virtual, you will automatically gain access to the COVID-19 Conference and can immerse yourself in this global gathering.

“We are facing the two great viral pandemics of our time,” Dr. Gandhi said. “We still have a lot to learn about COVID-19. What we learned from the AIDS pandemic will help us defeat the Coronavirus.”


For more information and to register for AIDS2020: Virtual, log on to www.AIDS2020.org.


Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.