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VERA FILES FACT SHEET: Duterte says the new coronavirus is similar to HIV. Is that so?

Comparing the novel coronavirus (now called severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 or SARS-CoV-2) with other epidemics, such as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), President Rodrigo Duterte said it will “die a natural death” even without vaccines.

In a Feb. 3 press briefing on the government’s efforts in preventing the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), the president likened the SARS-CoV-2 with HIV:

“You don’t die of HIV. You die because your body is weakened by the virus and then the bacteria will take over and that is pneumonia. Ganito rin ‘yan (The [novel coronavirus] is also like this). By itself — hindi ‘yan (it will not [kill]).”

Source: Presidential Communications Operations Office, Media Interview: Briefing on the 2019-Novel Coronavirus-Acute Respiratory Disease, Feb. 3, 2020, watch from 19:35 to 19:57

Duterte said, like HIV, SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — would “weaken” the body and “destroy” the person’s white blood cells. Once these are “depleted,” bacteria then “enters the picture,” causing the person to die of other infections, “usually pneumonia,” he added.

But what exactly is HIV and how does it affect the body? Is it similar to SARS-CoV-2? Here are the three things you need to know.

1. HIV and SARS-CoV-2 are ‘different in nature.’

In a Feb. 27 email, the World Health Organization (WHO) told VERA Files that it is “not right” to compare the two viruses because they “differ in nature.”

COVID-19 is the “infectious disease” caused by SARS-CoV-2. Its most common symptoms are fever, tiredness, and dry cough, while some patients may also experience aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat, or diarrhea, WHO said. Most people, or about 80 percent, recover from the disease without needing special treatment. (See VERA FILES FACT SHEET: Novel coronavirus: Six things you need to know)

HIV, on the other hand, “targets the immune system and weakens people’s defense systems against infections and some types of cancer.” The virus “destroys and impairs the function of immune cells,” thus infected individuals gradually become immunodeficient, WHO said in its email.

It specifically attacks and destroys the body’s “infection-fighting CD4 [or T-helper] cells of the immune system,” which are the ones that coordinate with other immune cells to fight infections and disease, according to a fact sheet of the United States’ National Institutes of Health.

When a person’s immune defenses are weakened, he or she becomes more vulnerable to opportunistic infections, like pneumonia, brought about by “microbes and other pathogens in our everyday environment,” WHO explained in the email.

Such infections are called “opportunistic” because they “take advantage of the opportunity offered by a weakened immune system,” WHO added. These are the causes of death among people living with HIV (PLHIV), not the virus itself.

In the most advanced stages of HIV infection, when the body’s immune system is badly damaged by the virus, a person develops acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), which can take from two to 15 years to develop if not treated, “depending on the individual,” according to a WHO fact sheet.

2. Tuberculosis, not pneumonia, is the leading cause of death among PLHIVs.

Tuberculosis (TB) is responsible for “nearly one in three HIV-associated deaths,” WHO told VERA Files.

PLHIVs are “20 times more likely to become ill with TB than those without HIV.” Even when on TB treatment, people coinfected with HIV and TB are “3 times more likely to die from TB,” it added.

WHO data show about 251,000 PLHIVs died of TB in 2018. This a 16.33 percent decrease from the 300,000 deaths in 2017, and 37.25 percent decrease from the 400,000 recorded in 2016.

TB is caused by a bacteria (mycobacterium tuberculosis) that “mostly affects” the lungs.It is spread from person to person through the air when those with lung TB “cough, sneeze, or spit” thus propelling the TB germs into the air, WHO said. Deaths among PLHIVs with TB are preventable with early detection and the appropriate treatments.

The United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), which coordinates global action against the virus and the disease, has listed other common “opportunistic infections” that affect PLHIVs. These include a type of pneumonia (pneumocystis carinii pneumonia) caused by a tiny parasite that affects the lungs, among other organs; and herpes (herpes simplex), a disease that may be transmitted through oral to oral contact, causing infection in the mouth, or sexually, causing infection to the genital or anal area.

3. PH has the fastest growing HIV cases in Asia and the Pacific region.

In its latest report, released in December 2019, UNAIDS said, “while there has been strong progress in several countries,” the epidemic has “outpaced” the response in some, including the Philippines, as annual new HIV infections are “rising rapidly.”

Data in the UNAIDS report show that new HIV infections in the country have increased by 203 percent from 2010 to 2018.

The Department of Health’s Epidemiology Bureau, in its September 2019 report, said it has recorded an average of 36 new HIV cases per day.

About 77,000 Filipino adults and children are estimated to be living with HIV as of 2018, of which about 18,000 or 24 percent are unaware of their condition, according to UNAIDS data.

There are about 37.9 million people in the world who are living with HIV, as of December 2018; 1.7 million are newly affected by the virus — a 16 percent decline from the 2.1 million new infections recorded in 2010.



World Health Organization, Naming the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the virus that causes it

Presidential Communications Operations Office, Media Interview of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte following the briefing on the 2019-Novel Coronavirus, Feb. 3, 2020

RTVMalacanang Youtube, Briefing on the 2019 Novel Coronavirus – Acute Respiratory Disease, Feb. 3, 2020

World Health Organization, Q&A; on coronaviruses (COVID-19), Feb. 23, 2020

National Institutes of Health U.S. National Library of Medicine, HIV Overview

National Institutes of Health U.S. National Library of Medicine, HIV/AIDS Glossary: CD4 T Lymphocyte

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, AIDS and Opportunistic Infections, What are HIV and AIDS?, June 17, 2019

World Health Organization, HIV/AIDS, Nov. 15, 2019

World Health Organization, Tuberculosis, Oct. 17, 2019

World Health Organization, TB causes 1 in 3 HIV deaths, Sept. 26, 2018

World Health Organization, HIV/AIDS Online Q&A;, November 2017

World Health Organization, What is TB? How is it treated?, January 2018

Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, UNAIDS Technical Update: HIV-related opportunistic diseases pg 3-4, October 1998

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia

World Health Organization, Herpes simplex virus, Jan. 31, 2017

Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, Country factsheets: Philippines 2018

Department of Health, DOH Epidemiology Bureau, HIV/AIDS & Art Registry of the Philippines, Sept. 2019

Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, Global HIV & AIDS statistics — 2019 fact sheet


(Guided by the code of principles of
the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, VERA Files tracks
the false claims, flip-flops, misleading statements of public officials
and figures, and debunks them with factual evidence.
Find out more about this initiative and our methodology.)