As researchers race to learn more about Omicron, one theory focuses on rampant HIV in Southern Africa. COVID can persist for months in people with compromised immune systems. Scientists believe the increased time span offers increased opportunities for the virus to mutate.
While a manageable, chronic disease in western countries, rampant HIV remains a reality in much of Africa. Two-thirds of the global population of people living with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa. Additionally, millions do not receive effective antiretroviral therapy.
A recent South African study mapped coronavirus in a woman with advanced HIV, and not accessing effective antiviral therapy. Over six months, the COVID virus accumulated 32 mutations in her body.
“This example is consistent with the notion that variants arising in immune-compromised hosts, including those with advanced HIV disease, may evolve immune escape of vaccines.”
In an article at Nature, the researchers urged governments to devote more resources to the interactions between COVID-19 and HIV. They suggested tackling the two diseases simultaneously to curb both more effectively.
Vaccine equity and Omicron
The monopolisation of vaccines by wealthy countries and the failure to live up to earlier promises of equitable sharing exacerbated the problem.
“By mid-November, more than 40% of people globally had been fully vaccinated. In Africa, it was less than 7%.”
That wealthy countries would hoard vaccines and variants like Omicron subsequently emerge was never a secret. From early in the pandemic, scientists predicted the pandemic would last longer because of mutations if people in poorer countries did not receive vaccines.
Now, it’s happening.
None of us is safe until we are all safe.
The South African researchers describe sub-Saharan Africa as especially vulnerable to worsening devastation from COVID-19 and HIV.
“[That] will also negatively affect the rest of Africa and the wider world.”
They asked for stakeholders to commit to four goals: Vaccinate Africa, prioritise research, maintain HIV services and lastly, integrate health systems.
“The best way for governments to protect their citizens is not by further stigmatising those infected with HIV; it is by quickly providing vaccines to protect the world’s most vulnerable. Only global solidarity — not discrimination, blockage or the hoarding of resources — will end the COVID-19 pandemic.”
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