Millions have succumbed to AIDS-related causes due to inadequate access to existing therapies, the UNAIDS chief Winnie Byanyima said, urging for a fairer approach to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Byanyima appreciated the "tremendous progress" in the fight against HIV/AIDS since the pandemic occurred four decades ago, including the slash in annual deaths from the peak of 1.7 million in 2004 to 690,000 last year.
However, she said that since the beginning, the development of treatments and the ongoing search for a vaccine had largely been left to the private sector. She also suggested a shift in tactics as the world faces the challenges of COVID-19 pandemic.
The UNAIDS chief 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," she said.
To prevent a similar experience with the novel coronavirus, UNAIDS has been one of the most vocal proponents for the development of a "people's vaccine", and for equitable and fair access to any treatments discovered.
"This time, let us have a common pool," Byanyima said.
The World Health Organization came up with a global initiative in April to ramp up the development and production of COVID-19 tests, vaccines and treatments, and to ensure fair access to all.
Byanyima said that there is a need to ensure every country has 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 also condemned reports that claimed the United States and few European countries were booking out supplies of one of the most advanced candidate vaccines, developed by Astra Zeneca and Oxford University. Washington 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 urgency to come up with vaccines and treatments against COVID-19, in which governments are putting in 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.
Changing the model to address the coronavirus crisis could have far-reaching benefits, including perhaps speeding up a search for an HIV vaccine, she added.
"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 suggested.
Byanyima pointed to multiple diseases affecting poor countries that have no treatments because companies have decided that investing in their development would not pay off financially. "Lives have to come before profits," she said.
"Coronavirus is threatening to blow us even more off track," she said.
Byanyima warned that the world was "already off track" and would miss the target of getting 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.