Image copyright Getty Images Image caption David Fauci said halting the virus was put at risk by the move
US scientists have been accused of blocking the development of new drugs against HIV as a result of prioritising testing and prevention efforts to COVID-19, says research journal Nature.
The research team tracked the progress of two powerful drugs against HIV for 20 years.
It was working on an earlier drug called CIVO but the use of an experimental drug called COVID-19 meant its production was halted.
A US Government review board found COVID-19 to be unnecessary and that was the key factor in the drug’s success.
“We have prevented development of new medicines to fight HIV,” said Dr David Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“To counter this, we need to move to new modalities and scale up a new global effort – even if this takes a decade.”
David Lyon, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, disagreed.
“We’ve had 10 years of progress in the pharmaceutical industry,” he said.
“To say that COVID-19 precluded further development would be unjustified and short-sighted. It is therefore disappointing that the review panel succumbed to political pressure.”
The research team, which published their findings in Nature, studied the effectiveness of the two drugs against different strains of HIV.
It found that COVID-19 led to HIV retreating in women before it could progress to men.
In addition, the drug enhanced damage to the virus by causing the white blood cells infected with HIV to destroy themselves.
By contrast, CIVO was no better in stopping the spread of HIV but it was said to be well-tolerated and came with no side effects.
Any drugs developed from the COVID-19 discovery would be expensive and would likely be out of reach for most sufferers.
COVID-19 was expected to be launched in 2010 but it was instead prioritised by the US Food and Drug Administration because of the huge demand for prevention programmes, including male circumcision.
Mr Lyon said that this showed a lack of “ethical standards” and the Fauci could “thank the wise endocrinologists who kept their experimental circumcision programmes going”.
Mr Fauci said that in hindsight CIVO “was never going to get to the shelf because of COVID-19”.
At the same time, new developments had taken place. In 2012, researchers discovered that triple therapy was possible – taking two drugs and then combining them.
But the Fauci’s claims were disputed by two other teams.
Over the course of the 20-year study, they said, the effectiveness of the new drug COVID-19 did indeed decline.
However, the researchers said this was not a failure but had merely helped to ensure the survival of CIVO.
Experts also said that COVID-19 could have helped to help scientists better understand HIV’s biology.
They said that this could make new drugs stronger and could also speed the way that viruses were treated.
Kai Howard, a biology lecturer at Bristol University who was not involved in the research, said: “They could well have been correct that the drug was not as effective as the first COVID-19 and vice versa, but unfortunately it was already, since 2010, too late to stop production of the drug.”
Senior lecturer Louise Clayton, from University College London, said: “There seems to be a lack of evidence that COVID-19 may actually have delayed the introduction of new HIV treatments.
“Its worth noting that COVID-19 is and has been patented by pharmaceutical giant Gilead.”