New Drug Could End HIV Pandemic as Study Finds It Prevents Transmission of the Virus

May 3, 2019 Updated: May 3, 2019

A landmark study may have made a major breakthrough in the battle to end the AIDS epidemic, as it found treatment can prevent those already HIV positive from sexually transmitting the virus to a partner.

A Europe-wide study examined almost 1,000 male couples, where one was HIV positive and receiving antiretroviral therapy. Over a period of eight years, there were no cases of the infection being sexually transmitted without a condom to the HIV-negative partner.

While 15 men among the 972 gay couples tested HIV-positive throughout the study, genetic testing showed the virus had been transmitted sexually from an outside partner not involved in the treatment.

The potential breakthrough could mean an end to the spread of infections, according to an expert who co-authored the paper published in the medical journal, the Lancet, on May 2.

Its findings add hope to earlier studies, which have shown zero risk of transmission between heterosexual couples where the treatment was used on one HIV-positive partner, The Guardian reported.

“It’s brilliant—fantastic. This very much puts this issue to bed,” said Professor Alison Rodgers from University College London.

“Our findings support the message of the international U=U campaign that an undetectable viral load makes HIV untransmittable,” Rodgers added.

She added that this “powerful message” could put an end to the HIV pandemic by preventing the virus from being transmitted in high-risk populations.

The study found that throughout the 8-year study, around 472 HIV transmissions were prevented due to the suppressive antiretroviral treatment.

More than 77 million people have become infected with the virus since the start of the Aids epidemic in the 1980s. Of those infected, 35.4 million—almost half—have died from the virus, Reuters reported. Almost 40 million people around the world were HIV-positive in 2017.

Researchers hope the study will remove the stigma associated with the virus and reinforce the need to frequently get tested for HIV.

In a commentary in the Lancet on the study, Myron S Cohen of the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases in North Carolina, said, “It is not always easy for people to get tested for HIV or find access to care; in addition, fear, stigma, homophobia and other adverse social forces continue to compromise HIV treatment.“

“Diagnosis of HIV infection is difficult in the early stages of infection when transmission is very efficient, and this limitation also compromises the treatment as prevention strategy,” he added.

Almost half of new HIV diagnoses are late, which is proving a major obstacle in providing those infected with treatment, the Guardian reported.

“If we don’t reduce late diagnosis, there will always be those who are not aware of their HIV status and who therefore cannot access treatment,” said Deborah Gold, chief executive of the National Aids Trust.

“We think that the findings from this study could be incredibly powerful in breaking down some of the barriers to testing in communities where there is still a lot of stigma around HIV.”

While the number of people killed by the virus is declining annually, and the number of people receiving antiretroviral treatment is one the rise, global health experts say the number of new infections per year is still stubbornly high at 1.8 million.

“During the course of these studies, antiretroviral drugs have become more effective, reliable, durable, easier to take, well tolerated and much less expensive,” Cohen added in his commentary.

“The results … provide yet one more catalyst for a universal test-and-treat strategy to provide the full benefits of antiretroviral drugs. This and other strategies continue to push us toward the end of Aids.”