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US, Mexico AIDS confabs to go virtual


Cynthia Carey-Grant, left, gestures to her fellow AIDS 2020 co-chair, Dr. Monica Gandhi, at a conference kickoff event last fall in San Francisco. Photo: Liz Highleyman
Cynthia Carey-Grant, left, gestures to her fellow AIDS 2020 co-chair, Dr. Monica Gandhi, at a conference kickoff event last fall in San Francisco. Photo: Liz Highleyman  

Organizers of the 2020 International AIDS Conference announced Friday that the in-person meeting, scheduled for July 7-10 in San Francisco and Oakland, will be replaced with a virtual conference in the wake of the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

Planners of HIV2020, a parallel community-based conference slated for Mexico City at the same time, reached a similar decision.

"AIDS 2020: Virtual will still be a fantastic meeting and will include sessions on COVID-19 and the attempts to define the relationship between HIV and COVID-19," San Francisco local conference co-chair Dr. Monica Gandhi of UCSF and Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital wrote in an email to the Bay Area Reporter. "While we are disappointed not to welcome our HIV community in person to the Bay Area, AIDS 2020: Virtual will equalize access, create new pathways for collaboration, and maintain international impact."

AIDS 2020 and HIV2020 are just two of many conferences to be canceled, postponed, or shifted to a virtual format in recent weeks. Earlier this month, the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, the largest annual U.S. HIV scientific meeting, was among the first to go virtual, with presentations given via webcast.

When contacted two weeks ago, Gandhi, who serves as medical director of the HIV Clinic at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, told the Bay Area Reporter, "we are too far away from AIDS 2020 to have a definitive decision yet on whether it will be held in person or virtually, until we can observe the course of containment over the next month or so."

But the pandemic has moved with remarkable speed. This week, the United States overtook China as the country with the most cumulative cases of COVID-19, as the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus is called.

Sponsored by the International AIDS Society, AIDS 2020 was expected to draw upward of 20,000 participants from more than 170 countries. Although the organizers concluded that it would not be safe for people to travel and gather in large numbers in the Bay Area, they say the virtual conference "will continue to shine a spotlight on our host cities, San Francisco and Oakland, exploring the tale of these two cities through science, innovation, and activism."

The organizers acknowledge that much remains to be learned about how COVID-19 affects people living with HIV. Most experts think those who are on effective antiretroviral treatment with an undetectable viral load and a high CD4 count are not at increased risk of infection. But a substantial proportion of HIV-positive people have not achieved viral suppression, and many are older and have underlying health conditions that could make them more likely to develop serious illness.

"[W]e are acutely aware that there is not yet sufficient data on whether people living with HIV are more susceptible to COVID-19 or more likely to develop severe disease," according to a statement from Gandhi and co-chairs Dr. Anton Pozniak and Cynthia Carey-Grant. "Therefore, we have a special obligation to reduce any potential risk to the HIV community."

Furthermore, the statement continues, "many of those who were planning to attend are now working on the front lines in the response to COVID-19 around the world. We have a responsibility to not put any of these individuals — or their home communities — at risk, nor redirect their efforts at a critical time in the response to the pandemic."

Organizers said that the virtual conference will still feature a full program of events.

"AIDS 2020: Virtual will enable delegates to access and engage with the latest HIV science, advocacy, and knowledge traditionally presented at the conference," according to the co-chairs' statement. "It will be a compelling combination of virtual sessions and community networking including exhibitions, workshops, the Global Village, satellites, and pre-conferences that will reach audiences around the world."

Mexico City meeting canceled
Ever since it was announced that San Francisco and Oakland would be the host cities for AIDS 2020, some local and international advocates have opposed holding the meeting in the United States, citing a political climate they see as increasingly hostile to immigrants, people of color, LGBT people, and other groups heavily impacted by HIV.

In late 2018, a coalition of advocates, community organizations, and people living with HIV announced that they would host a concurrent event in Mexico City. These organizers, too, rethought their plans in the face of the new pandemic, and a decision was cemented when the Mexican government suspended large events and gatherings at least through August.

"The organizers of HIV2020 prioritize above all else the health and safety of our communities," reads an updated statement on the conference website. "We cannot overstate the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic."

HIV2020 organizers are still exploring alternatives to a face-to-face meeting.

"This may include virtual sessions (i.e., prerecorded keynote addresses from leaders in the field, livestreamed panel presentations led by community advocates and community-led service providers, and virtual discussion rooms) aligned with the HIV020 themes of affinity, intersectional, and solidarity," the statement continued. "Alternatives to a face-to-face meeting will most certainly shine a spotlight on the critical role communities have and must continue to play in the global HIV response."

Registered delegates will be contacted with further information on a reduced pricing structure, and details about the virtual program will be available at http://www.aids2020.org

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