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Venezuelans with HIV/AIDS dying due to lack of antiretroviral drugs

Many Venezuelans still support Maduro, despite the deepening crisis



People wait in the waiting room at an HIV/STI clinic in Caracas, Venezuela, on Feb. 13. 2019. Venezuelan HIV/AIDS service providers tell the Washington Blade that people with HIV/AIDS are dying because of an acute shortage of available anti-retroviral drugs in the country. (Photo courtesy of Alianza Lambda de Venezuela)

People with HIV/AIDS in Venezuela are dying because of an acute lack of available antiretroviral drugs in the country, according to service providers and activists with whom the Washington Blade has spoken in recent days.

César Sequera, founder of Alianza Lambda de Venezuela, a Venezuelan LGBTI advocacy group, told the Blade on Feb. 8 during a telephone interview from the country’s Vargas state that he has been able to obtain antiretroviral drugs from non-governmental organizations or from donations he received from outside the country. Sequera, who is also a priest at an Anglican church outside of the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, acknowledged “there are other people who aren’t receiving them.”

“The situation is critical and alarming,” he told the Blade.

Hendrial Briceño, a 26-year-old public university professor who lives in Caracas, tested positive five years ago.

He told the Blade during a WhatsApp interview on Feb. 8 that he did not take antiretroviral drugs for a year “because there weren’t any.” Briceño said he currently has a month’s supply.

“We have a very serious situation,” said Eduardo Franco, secretary of Red Venezolana de Gente Positiva, a Caracas-based HIV/AIDS advocacy group, during a telephone interview on Monday.

Sequera, Briceño and Franco all told the Blade that Venezuela’s worsening economic and political crises have further exacerbated the country’s HIV/AIDS crisis.

A report from the International Council for AIDS Service Organizations (ICASO), Aid for AIDS International, Global Development and three Venezuelan organizations — Asociación Civil Impacto Social, Alianza Venezolana para la Salud and Sociedad Venezolana de Salud Pública — cites statistics from the Pan-American and World Health Organizations, the Venezuelan Ministry of Health and other agencies that note 25,000 more people died from HIV between 2010-2018. The statistics also indicate the number of people with HIV increased from 97,000 to more than 120,000 during the same period.

PAHO, WHO and UNAIDS representatives traveled to Caracas last June in order to observe the Venezuelan government’s efforts to combat HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. The organizations subsequently announced a plan to combat the diseases that includes input from Venezuelan health care providers, NGOs and government representatives.

“The plan was subsequently presented to the national authorities who gave approval of the document, as well as to State coordinators, the Venezuelan Society of Infectious Diseases, Pulmonology, Pediatrics and Gynecology/Obstetrics,” reads the plan of which the Blade obtained a copy.

The Global Fund board of directors on Sept. 24, 2018, approved $5 million “to help alleviate the gaps in the provision of HIV treatment in Venezuela.”

The PAHO Strategic Fund received $4.9 million to purchase antiretroviral drugs. Venezuelan NGOs received the remaining $100,000 from UNAIDS in order to oversee the distribution of the medications to people with HIV/AIDS.

The first shipment of the antiretroviral drug Tenofovir, Lamivudine and Dolutegravir (TLD), which contained 100,000 bottles, arrived in Venezuela on Dec. 23, 2018. A second shipment of TLD with 200,000 bottles arrived in the country on Jan. 16.

Red Venezolana de Gente Positiva and more than two dozen other Venezuelan HIV/AIDS service and advocacy organizations in a Feb. 4 letter to Health Minister Carlos Alvarado said none of the bottles from the two shipments had been distributed from a warehouse that is located on a military base in Miranda state. The letter also notes “millions and millions of pills of antiretroviral drugs are stored and withheld without justification” at the warehouse.

“Venezuelan civil society organizations working on HIV are writing to you to demand your urgent intervention in the release and delivery of antiretroviral medicines that will save the lives of more than 70,000 people living with HIV and AIDS in Venezuela,” reads the letter.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Feb. 6 wrote in a tweet that “apparently (President Nicolás) Maduro is blocking $5 million Global Fund shipments of HIV and AIDS medicine from Venezuela.”

“This is a death sentence to those who depend on anti-virals (sic) for survival,” said the Florida Republican.

A Rubio spokesperson on Monday told the Blade she did not “have any additional information” about the antiretroviral drug shipment.

The Venezuelan government has said a lack of working trucks has prevented it from distributing the drugs throughout the country.

ICASO Executive Director Mary Ann Torres, who is originally from Venezuela, on Tuesday told the Blade during a telephone interview from Toronto the Venezuelan Ministry of Health indeed only a handful of trucks that are working. She said officials distributed some of the drugs in Valencia, a city in Carabobo state, after the open letter to Alvarado and Rubio’s tweet.

‘The government doesn’t care’

Venezuela, which has the world’s largest known oil reserves, was once Latin America’s most prosperous country. Venezuela’s worsening economic and political crisis has prompted millions of Venezuelans to migrate to neighboring Colombia and other countries in recent years.

Juan Guaidó, president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, last month declared himself president after the country’s disputed presidential election that took place in May 2018. The U.S. is among the countries that have officially recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim leader.

Briceño said he has seen well-dressed people in Caracas “picking through the garbage” for food.

One source who asked the Blade not to identify them by name because of safety concerns said three condoms and a bottle of lubricant costs a month’s salary for someone who is making minimum wage. Madonna Badillo, a transgender woman of indigenous descent who lives in the Colombian city of Maicao, which is a few miles from the country’s border with Venezuela on the Guajira Peninsula, told the Blade last March during an interview at her home that Venezuelan women sell their hair to wigmakers for less than $10 “out of necessity.”

“One of the things I have seen is the government doesn’t care,” Torres told the Blade. “It’s a mixture of bad policies. It’s a mixture of ideology over evidence.”

A man who placed his hands in red paint puts them on a banner at Caribe Afirmativo’s “Casa de Paz” in Maicao, Colombia, on March 7, 2018. Caribe Afirmativo, a Colombian LGBTI advocacy group, hosted an event with LGBT Colombians and Venezuelans. The event ended with participants dipping their hands into red, yellow and blue paint — which represents the colors of the Colombian and Venezuelan flags — and putting them onto a banner to demonstrate the ties between the two communities. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Torres said other issues that have contributed to the crisis include corruption and the mismanagement of Venezuela’s nationalized oil and mining industries.

“It’s not about sanctions,” she told the Blade. “It’s about the mismanagement of a country and a government that is over-powerful and over-present everywhere. They have left the infrastructure to be destroyed completely. You see pictures of the hospitals and you understand why health is the way it is. Everything is falling apart.”

Sequera noted some Venezuelans still support Maduro, despite the deepening crisis. He also told the Blade there will be “a civil war” in the country if the U.S. stages a military intervention to oust Maduro.

“The entire population will come out on the street,” said Sequera.

Humanitarian aid is ‘urgently needed’ in Venezuela

Rubio is among those who have sharply criticized Maduro for preventing humanitarian aid from the U.S. from entering Venezuela. Media reports note Guaidó on Tuesday told supporters at a Caracas rally the aid would be brought into the country on Feb. 23.

Torres told the Blade that humanitarian aid is “urgently needed” in Venezuela. She also said the country needs to be completely rebuilt.

“The problem is the reconstruction won’t start with Maduro in power just because he doesn’t accept there is a problem,” said Torres.

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U.S. announces more funding for HIV/AIDS fight in Latin America

Jill Biden made announcement on Saturday in Panama



Former Panamanian first lady Lorena Castillo and UNAIDS in 2017 launched a campaign to fight discrimination against Panamanians with HIV/AIDS. Panama will receive $12.2 million in new PEPFAR funding to further combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Latin America. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

PANAMA CITY — First lady Jill Biden on Saturday announced the U.S. will provide an additional $80.9 million to the fight against HIV/AIDS in Latin America.

Biden during a visit to Casa Hogar el Buen Samaritano, a shelter for people with HIV/AIDS in Panama City, said the State Department will earmark an additional $80.9 million for President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief-funded work in Latin America. A Panamanian activist with whom the Washington Blade spoke said LGBTQ+ people were among those who met with the first lady during her visit.

Pope Francis visited the shelter in 2019.

“I’m glad we have the opportunity to talk about how the United States and Panama can work together to combat HIV,” said the first lady.

Michael LaRosa, the first lady’s spokesperson, noted Panama will receive $12.2 million of the $80.9 million in PEPFAR funding.

“This funding, pending Congressional notification, will support expanded HIV/AIDS services and treatment,” said LaRosa.

UNAIDS statistics indicate an estimated 31,000 Panamanians were living with HIV/AIDS in 2020. The first lady’s office notes the country in 2020 had the highest number of “newly notificated cases of HIV/AIDS” in Central America.

The first lady visited Panama as part of a trip that included stops in Ecuador and Costa Rica.

The Summit of the Americas will take place next month in Los Angeles. The U.S. Agency for International Development and PEPFAR in April announced they delivered more than 18 million doses of antiretroviral drugs for Ukrainians with HIV/AIDS.

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New highly-infectious variant of HIV discovered by Dutch scientists

This new variant of HIV-1 damaged the immune system twice as fast, “placing individuals at risk of developing AIDS much more rapidly”



The human immunodeficiency virus in the bloodstream (Photo Credit: NIH/CDC)

CAMBRIDGE, UK – A study published this week by Science (journal) detailed an alarming discovery by researchers, clinicians and epidemiologists in the Netherlands of a new, highly-infectious mutated variant strain of the human immunodeficiency virus, (HIV), circulating in the country.

The BEEHIVE project – which stands for “bridging the epidemiology and evolution of HIV in Europe and Uganda,” detailed the findings which showed that a distinct subtype-B viral variant of HIV-1 damaged the immune system twice as fast, “placing individuals at risk of developing AIDS much more rapidly”, and those with this variant were at a higher risk of transmitting the virus to others.

The variant, known as the “VB variant”, causes CD4 cell decline to occur twice as fast in infected individuals compared with other viral variants. This is a clinical hallmark, or “signature” of the extent of damage caused by the HIV virus. In addition, those infected with the VB variant also demonstrated an increased risk of transmitting the virus to others, the data suggests.

Individuals infected with the new “VB variant” (for virulent subtype B) showed significant differences before antiretroviral treatment compared with individuals infected with other HIV variants:

  • Individuals with the VB variant had a viral load (the level of the virus in the blood) between 3.5 and 5.5 times higher.
  • In addition, the rate of CD4 cell decline (the hallmark of immune system damage by HIV) occurred twice as fast in individuals with the VB variant, placing them at risk of developing AIDS much more rapidly.
  • Individuals with the VB variant also showed an increased risk of transmitting the virus to others.

The project’s researchers, clinicians and epidemiologists did determine however, that those infected with the VB variant had “similar immune system recovery and survival to individuals with other HIV variants.”

However, the researchers stress that because the VB variant causes a more rapid decline in immune system strength, this makes it critical that individuals are diagnosed early and start treatment as soon as possible.

BEEHIVE project‘s lead author Dr Chris Wymant, from the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute and Nuffield Department of Medicine, said: “Before this study, the genetics of the HIV virus were known to be relevant for virulence, implying that the evolution of a new variant could change its impact on health. Discovery of the VB variant demonstrated this, providing a rare example of the risk posed by viral virulence evolution.”

“Our findings emphasize the importance of World Health Organization guidance that individuals at risk of acquiring HIV have access to regular testing to allow early diagnosis, followed by immediate treatment. This limits the amount of time HIV can damage an individual’s immune system and jeopardise their health. It also ensures that HIV is suppressed as quickly as possible, which prevents transmission to other individuals,” Senior author Professor Christophe Fraser from the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute and Nuffield Department of Medicine, added.

In its Global HIV & AIDS statistics — Fact sheet, the UNAIDS Secretariat detailed the statistical data: 


  • 28.2 million people were accessing antiretroviral therapy as of 30 June 2021.
  • 37.7 million [30.2 million–45.1 million] people globally were living with HIV in 2020.
  • 1.5 million [1.0 million–2.0 million] people became newly infected with HIV in 2020.
  • 680 000 [480 000–1.0 million] people died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2020. 
  • 79.3 million [55.9 million–110 million] people have become infected with HIV since the start of the epidemic.
  • 36.3 million [27.2 million–47.8 million] people have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the start of the epidemic.

People living with HIV                                                                          

  • In 2020, there were 37.7 million [30.2 million–45.1 million] people living with HIV.
    • 36.0 million [28.9 million–43.2 million] adults.
    • 1.7 million [1.2 million–2.2 million] children (0–14 years).
    • 53% of all people living with HIV were women and girls.
  • 84% [67– >98%] of all people living with HIV knew their HIV status in 2020.
  • About 6.1 million [4.9 million–7.3 million] people did not know that they were living with HIV in 2020.

People living with HIV accessing antiretroviral therapy

  • As of 30 June 2021, 28.2 million people were accessing antiretroviral therapy, up from 7.8 million [6.9 million–7.9 million] in 2010.
  • In 2020, 73% [56–88%] of all people living with HIV were accessing treatment.
    • 74% [57–90%] of adults aged 15 years and older living with HIV had access to treatment, as did 54% [37–69%] of children aged 0–14 years.
    • 79% [61–95%] of female adults aged 15 years and older had access to treatment; however, just 68% [52–83%] of male adults aged 15 years and older had access.
  • 85% [63– >98%] of pregnant women living with HIV had access to antiretroviral medicines to prevent transmission of HIV to their child in 2020.

New HIV infections

  • New HIV infections have been reduced by 52% since the peak in 1997.
    • In 2020, around 1.5 million [1.0 million–2.0 million] people were newly infected with HIV, compared to 3.0 million [2.1 million–4.2 million] people in 1997.
    • Women and girls accounted for 50% of all new infections in 2020.
  • Since 2010, new HIV infections have declined by 31%, from 2.1 million [1.5 million–2.9 million] to 1.5 million [1.0 million–2.0 million] in 2020.
    • Since 2010, new HIV infections among children have declined by 53%, from 320 000 [210 000–510 000] in 2010 to 150 000 [100 000–240 000] in 2020.

AIDS-related deaths

  • AIDS-related deaths have been reduced by 64% since the peak in 2004 and by 47% since 2010.
    • In 2020, around 680 000 [480 000–1 million] people died from AIDS-related illnesses worldwide, compared to 1.9 million [1.3 million–2.7 million] people in 2004 and 1.3 million [910 000–1.9 million] people in 2010.
  • AIDS-related mortality has declined by 53% among women and girls and by 41% among men and boys since 2010.
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‘Promising’ HIV vaccine study conducted at George Washington University

“We are tremendously excited to be advancing this new direction in HIV vaccine design with Moderna’s mRNA platform”



Courtesy of the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences

WASHINGTON – D.C.’s George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences is one of four sites across the country in which a preliminary component of an experimental HIV vaccine is being given to volunteer participants in a study aimed at reversing years of failed attempts to develop an effective HIV vaccine by pursuing what study sponsors say is a new, promising approach.

The study, which involves 56 healthy, HIV-negative volunteer participants, is being conducted by the nonprofit scientific research organization known as IAVI and the biotechnology company Moderna, which developed one of the coronavirus vaccines now being used throughout the world.

In a Jan. 27 joint statement, IAVI and Moderna said their study is part of a Phase 1 trial designed to test newly developed experimental HIV vaccine antigens to determine if they will lead to the development of an effective HIV vaccine.  

According to scientific literature, antigens are substances such as bacteria, viruses, and chemicals that induce the body to release antibodies that fight off infections. The statement by IAVI and Moderna says a vaccine technology developed by Moderna to use another component of the human body called messenger RNA or mRNA to strengthen a potential vaccine’s ability to fight off infection by HIV is also a part of this vaccine study.

“We are tremendously excited to be advancing this new direction in HIV vaccine design with Moderna’s mRNA platform,” Mark Feinberg, president and CEO of IAVI, says in the statement. “The search for an HIV vaccine has been long and challenging and having new tools in terms of immunogens and platforms could be the key to making rapid progress toward an urgently needed, effective HIV vaccine,” he says in the statement.

The statement says that scientific teams at IAVI and the biotechnology firm Scripps Research helped to develop the HIV vaccine antigens being tested in the trials taking place at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences and at locations in Atlanta, Ga., Seattle, Wash., and San Antonio, Tex.

It says the trial involving the 56 volunteer participants — who are divided among the four sites — began on Jan. 27 and is being funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Among those calling the IAVI-Moderna trial an important step in HIV vaccine development is Carl Dieffenbach, director of the Division of AIDS at the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which is part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

“This is a variation of a theme,” Dieffenbach told the Washington Blade. “IAVI in collaboration with NIH did a version of this study already with a protein form of this immunogen,” Dieffenbach said. He said that study worked out well and was published in a scientific journal.

“What’s unique about this latest study is they’re using RNA to deliver the vaccine rather than a protein,” said Dieffenbach. “So, this is an important step for us in the vaccine field, that they can now compare the protein to the RNA.”

Dieffenbach said the IAVI-Moderna trial is taking place after two other recently completed HIV vaccine studies involving human trials that NIAID was involved in resulted in findings that the two experimental HIV vaccines were ineffective. He said a third HIV vaccine study NIAID is involved in that is taking place in the U.S. and South America is expected to be completed in about a year.

The ongoing study in the Americas involves men who have sex with men and transgender individuals as those participating in that vaccine trial, he said.

Dieffenbach said in addition to the vaccine studies, NIAID is monitoring at least two studies of medication aimed at curing HIV. One of the studies was conducted by HIV researcher Dr. Timothy Schacker, who serves as Vice Dean for research at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

Schacker arranged for human trials of people who are HIV positive and taking standard anti-retroviral HIV medication to be given an experimental HIV cure medication developed by the biotechnology company ImmunityBio called Anktiva, according to a Jan. 31 statement released by ImmunityBio.

The statement says the trials showed promising results in the ability of Anktiva to induce the immune system of HIV-positive patients under standard HIV treatment who participated in the study to “kill” the latent or “hidden” HIV in their body that would otherwise reactivate and cause illness if they stopped taking HIV medication.

The goal of the development of Anktiva is to “rid the body of the virus for good and eliminate the need for antiretroviral therapy,” the company’s statement says.

Dieffenbach said his office was also monitoring an HIV cure study being conducted by the Rockville, Md., based genetic engineering company called American Gene Technologies. The company is conducting a human trial for a therapeutic treatment it has developed that’s intended to enable the immune system of HIV-positive people to permanently eliminate HIV from their bodies. The company has said it was hopeful that early results of the effectiveness of the treatment would become available this year.

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