Covid-19 forces biggest HIV conference to go virtual for the first time

04 July 2020 - 10:02 By Sipokazi Fokazi
The largest gathering of the HIV community, the International Aids Conference, or Aids 2020, will be held virtually for the first time in its 35-year history.
The largest gathering of the HIV community, the International Aids Conference, or Aids 2020, will be held virtually for the first time in its 35-year history.
Image: AFP PHOTO/PATRICK LIN

Around this time of the year every two years the HIV community gathers in droves in a huge international convention centre somewhere in the world for the world’s largest conference on HIV and Aids, the International Aids Conference.

But as from Monday people across the world will just be a click away from this science-packed five-day conference as it goes virtual because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The conference brings together scientists, policymakers, health care professionals, people living with HIV and media. The 23rd International Aids Conference was initially scheduled to be held in San Francisco and Oakland in the US.

With more than 600 virtual sessions lined up, the conference will enable delegates to access and engage with the latest HIV science, advocacy and knowledge traditionally presented in person.

Prof Linda-Gail Bekker, deputy director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre and the immediate past president of the International Aids Society (IAS) which hosts this conference, said with the conference going virtual the organisers have been able to pack even more sessions in.

“There is round-the-clock programming with sessions running in all three time zones at any time throughout the days of the conference — an extraordinary feat that could only be achieved because of virtual platform.

“We will be hearing exciting updates on HIV cure, and long-acting PrEP (pre-exposure) prevention. There are also clinical updates on use of dolutegravir  (a new blockbuster HIV drug) and the impact of Covid-19 on HIV services. There is a lot to come and listen to,” she said.

Prof Linda-Gail Bekker says the virtual aids conference will have a round-the-clock programming with sessions running in all three time zones
Prof Linda-Gail Bekker says the virtual aids conference will have a round-the-clock programming with sessions running in all three time zones
Image: supplied

With about 20,000 participants from more than 170 countries expected to attend the conference when it was to be held in San Francisco, Bekker said a lot more people could attend now that the meeting has gone online.

“We do hope many more will register due to the cheaper fees and of course no need to travel. We have also given out an unprecedented number of scholarships and ways to connect, including enhancing people’s connectivity in lower and middle income countries.”

Bekker said the decision to go virtual had been the right one to limit physical contact. It would also not be possible to have a traditional conference due to travel bans that are still in place.

To accommodate some level of networking in this year’s meeting the organisers said they have maintained interactive platforms such as the global village — a diverse and vibrant space where communities gather from all over the world to share and learn from each other.

“ We know how important the networking is and so we have still tried to accommodate this, albeit virtual ... we have tried to maintain an iterative, interactive component throughout and people can still come to the global village and the exhibition space. So people can simply go ‘in’ and experience it. I think it will be new and fun,” said Bekker.

Different parts of the world had been considered in three time zones with all three zones getting an equal share of “prime time” for the conference first showing. Thereafter, in equal share, each time zone will get another second and third showing. There will be equal numbers of live and recorded versions.

Bekker said organisers were not anticipating any major technical glitches. “We are using a platform provider who does this kind of large conference for business. We are pretty sure those kinds of technical difficulties will be taken care of.

“We know bandwidth for many especially in lower middle income countries  can be tough — scholarships were awarded to help with this and we have kept things low key for this reason in terms of bandwidth. The main thing will be, as usual, about the science, the advocacy and the chance to network,” said Bekker.

At the end of the conference the IAS will also be hosting a free virtual Covid-19 Conference between July 10-11 on breaking research, policy developments, and front-line experiences related to the pandemic.

For more information on the conference visit: www.aids2020.org.


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