A day and a half before the start of CROI 2020 was set to bring scientists and clinical researchers together for a week of presentations and discussions on HIV challenges and advances, an email landed in the inboxes of would be attendees — stay where you are, it said, and if you’re on the way, head home . . .
CYBERSPACE – Discussions among organizers of this conference throughout a week of fast-moving developments in the spread of a new coronavirus debated whether to draw attendees from across the country and around the world together at a Boston convention center as planned, or maintain the safest possible social distance with a virtual meeting, Dr. Sharon Hillier, chair of the 2020 Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, tregistrants in an opening webcast tonight.
As it turned out, the confirmation Friday that three people attending an earlier conference — of biotechnology company Biogen employees — in Boston had been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, made the decision inescapable, she said. The needs surrounding those three patients alone, to isolate them, trace their contacts, and possibly quarantine, diagnose, isolate, and treat some of those contacts, would heavily burden public health responders. Adding to that, with a meeting of several thousand people, many traveling from already affected places — many infectious disease specialists needed where they would be coming from — would not be responsible. As it also happened, tonight 15 more people attending the Biogen meeting have shown signs of the disease, and are awaiting test results.
That impact — of a newly recognized virus with pandemic potential, colliding with efforts to address an ongoing pandemic — remains relatively minor in the big picture. The effects of quarantines, travel restrictions, overburdened health systems, and medical supply chain disruptions in the third month of the recognized spread of COVID-19, on lives, communities, economies, health systems and HIV responses at home and abroad remain uncounted. But at a conference of scientists and clinicians who study the origins and answers of public health threats, the disruption of a chance to meet, talk, ask questions exacts further opportunity costs.
Tonight’s Bernard Fields lecture on the “the Ancient and Modern Origins of HIV” by Michael Emerman, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Seattle, WA, examined the lengthy and complex process from which a virus “jumps” from animals to humans, and what is to be learned from it. The N’Galy-Mann lecture, by Alex G. Coutinho, of Uganda, examined how HIV prevention measures continue to fall out of reach of the people who need them most.
Stay tuned: Science Speaks will cover CROI 2020 virtually through Wednesday.