What People with HIV Need to Know About the New Coronavirus

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New research is emerging about how the respiratory virus spreads and how people can protect themselves and others.

By Liz Highleyman | Poz

A month after the new coronavirus respiratory disease known as COVID-19 came to public attention, researchers and public health officials are continuing to learn about its spread, its mortality rate and who is most likely to become seriously ill.

Although much remains unknown, it’s clear that older people, those with other health conditions and people with compromised immune systems have a higher likelihood of severe illness. This includes people living with HIV, especially those with low CD4 counts. But taking some basic precautions can lower your risk and improve your well-being.

COVID-19 Basics 

As of March 2, there were 43 confirmed or presumed positive cases of COVID-19 detected in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In addition, there have been 48 cases among people brought back to the United States, mostly from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. The virus now appears to be spreading locally within communities. Worldwide, more than 87,000 cases have been reported, according to the World Health Organization. Most of these are in China, but 58 countries have now seen cases.

The mortality rate for COVID-19 is thought to be around 2.5%, based on the numbers reported in the hardest-hit areas of China. This is substantially higher than the typical seasonal flu (around 0.1%), but much lower that the death rates of the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) coronaviruses, at around 10% and 30%, respectively.

However, the true COVID-19 mortality rate is not yet known because it is unclear how many people have contracted the new virus. If a large number of people have no or mild symptoms and never seek medical attention, the pool of infected people could be much larger and the death rate could be much lower. Receiving supportive treatment earlier in the course of the disease also lowers the risk of death.

A majority of people with COVID-19 have mild symptoms including fever, cough and shortness of breath. Around 20% develop more severe illness, including pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome, which may require intensive care and in some cases mechanical ventilation.

But not everyone who contracts the virus is at equal risk. According to a recent study by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention of more than 45,000 confirmed cases, people with coexisting conditions had higher death rates: 5.6% for cancer, 6.0% for high blood pressure, 6.3% for chronic respiratory disease, 7.3% for diabetes and 10.5% for cardiovascular disease. The greatest risk was seen among people age 80 or older, at 14.8%.

Experts do not yet know how long someone can transmit the coronavirus, officially known as SARS-CoV-2, before they develop symptoms or after they recover. It is also unclear whether the virus can linger in the body and later relapse; whether it confers immunity and, if so, for how long; or what the likelihood is of becoming infected again.

Researchers are hard at work to develop treatments for COVID-19 and a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2. Certain HIV medications have shown activity against the coronavirus. Clinical trials of Gilead Sciences’ antiviral drug remdesivir are currently underway in China and at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha—home of the CDC’s largest biocontainment unit—where some people who contracted the virus overseas are being treated. A vaccine from Moderna Therapeutics has been sent to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for the first Phase I study. However, human trials are expected to last at least a year before a vaccine is ready for widespread use.

What About People With HIV? 

Compared with the general population, people with compromised immunity are at higher risk of contracting the new coronavirus and developing more serious COVID-19 illness. The HIV population is aging, and nearly half are over 50. Those with low CD4 T-cell counts, indicating advanced immune suppression, are at greatest risk. People with HIV are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease and may do so at a younger age. Certain HIV medications, especially older drugs, can cause neutropenia, or depletion of immune system white blood cells that fight infection.

“When you look at who’s been most profoundly ill, it tends to be people who are older, in their 60s, 70s and 80s. As you get older, your immune system doesn’t function as well,” says Steve Pergam, MD, MPH, of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Among people living with HIV, “it’s all based on level of immune suppression,” Pergam told POZ. “For an HIV patient who is on stable antiretroviral therapy and has a normal CD4 count, their risk may be slightly increased. People often lump HIV patients with other immunosuppressed patients, but HIV is a different disease than it was years ago. For people who have a reconstituted immune system because of treatment, I think the risk is not going to be tremendously different.”

“For cancer patients on chemotherapy, people with solid organ transplants or bone marrow transplants and those who use high-dose steroids for autoimmune diseases, the risk will likely be more severe,” he continues. “They may shed the virus for longer. They may be more likely to develop pneumonia and more likely to die. We don’t know until we have more information, but many of us have concerns about that.”

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