Researchers argue that it could lead to the emergence of new corona variants that are ‘even more contagious than the delta variant’.

We are currently confronted with the emergence of a new corona variant: Omikron. This new strain of the coronavirus was first discovered in southern Africa and has mutated quite a bit; it differs in as many as 32 places from the original coronavirus discovered in Wuhan. Scientists suspect that Omikron originated in an untreated HIV patient with a weakened immune system: hence the many mutations. And that should wake us up, researchers argue. Because if we’re not careful, uncontrolled HIV infections could make the pandemic even worse than it already is.


Africa is the continent hardest hit by HIV and AIDS. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 2 in 3 of the 37.7 million people have HIV (about 25 million people in total). However, many are not treated; for example, approximately 8 million people do not take any medicines. And that has far-reaching consequences, also with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic.

More serious disease course

People with HIV have a weakened immune system against viruses and bacteria. And that means that they are also more susceptible to the spreading coronavirus and more often have a more serious course of disease. Studies have also shown that – before the roll-out of the corona vaccines – people with HIV are 30 to 50 percent more likely to die from COVID-19.

New variants

While that’s bad enough, uncontrolled HIV infections have even more serious consequences. Because pathogens can multiply unhindered in untreated HIV patients, they can also mutate considerably. This is apparent, for example, from the newly emerged corona variant Omikron. In addition, it appears that people with weakened immune systems are more likely to remain infected with COVID-19 for several weeks or months, further increasing the chance of mutation of the virus. Such long-term infections have been observed in corona patients with advanced, uncontrolled HIV infection, most of whom thus live in Sub-Saharan Africa. And if these people also do not have access to corona vaccines, this could lead to the emergence of new, risky corona variants.

more contagious

Researchers now argue in an opinion piece that the inability to tackle COVID-19 in countries with high rates of uncontrolled HIV infections threatens the emergence of new corona variants that are ‘even more contagious than the delta variant’. It could also lead to the emergence of an even more dangerous variant that proves to be better suited to our current vaccines. And that would mean taking a huge step backwards globally in our fight against the coronavirus.


The researchers therefore emphasize that it is very important – also for ourselves – to vaccinate Africa against the coronavirus; a continent that has a very low vaccination rate. For example, on the entire African continent, only 6.6 percent of the population is vaccinated. And that, combined with the high number of untreated HIV patients, could turn out pretty badly. “In addition to the ethical case for tackling vaccine nationalism and reducing deaths worldwide, the available evidence strongly suggests that vaccinating people in Africa will help reduce the global transmission rate, limit the emergence of new variants and reduce global risk. containment of the pandemic will accelerate,” the researchers write.

Renewed commitment

The research team calls for a renewed commitment from high-income countries to do something about the unfair distribution of vaccines around the world. To give poor countries a chance, the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX for short) was created. A wonderful initiative on paper to which countries, philanthropists and the private sector can pledge money, in order to make COVID-19 vaccines available to everyone. But in practice, little comes of it. And that while the question is whether residents of wealthy countries can ever really feel safe as long as the virus is still circulating in other parts of the world. The researchers hope their op-ed will spur rich countries to address vaccine disparities; also for their own good.

Meanwhile, the fight against HIV and AIDS has also been jeopardized by the corona pandemic. The researchers therefore hope that support for HIV treatment and care programs disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic can be put back on track. “Both diseases could be curbed more effectively if addressed at the same time,” the researchers write. “The best way for governments to protect their citizens is not to further stigmatize those who are HIV positive. It is by rapidly providing vaccines to protect the world’s most vulnerable.”