Leading HIV conference goes virtual in a time of coronavirus outbreak

In the seven days before the start of CROI 2020, the national situation changed day by day in the midst of a worldwide coronavirus outbreak. After meeting over the course of several days, CROI organizers at first pledged to move forward with the international conference. Then, just two days before many attendees were to arrive for the March 8 opening, the conference went online only—“virtual”—instead.

Please don’t come to Boston, the organizers said. At that point, there was already an outbreak in Seattle and more importantly, three cases of COVID-19 linked to another medical conference in Boston a few days before. To their credit, conference organizers did go ahead with the event, just not how it had always taken place: face-to-face.

A virtual conference ended the ability of researchers, providers, and community representatives to meet in person with one another, at a loss of the resulting information exchange, inspiration, and collaboration that are an important piece of conferences like CROI. Clearly, in a time of an emerging new disease and unfolding pandemic, such an exchange was not possible.

“CROI leadership has continued to monitor the growing COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. and globally each day,” the organizers announced on March 6. “Many countries, agencies, and institutions have now banned travel, and many infectious disease physicians are urgently needed to care for patients with COVID-19 in their own institutions. Because of increasing concerns that travel to a large group gathering like CROI is not advisable from a personal and public health perspective, the CROI leadership has come to the difficult decision that the 2020 CROI meeting will be virtual.

“CROI leadership will be present in Boston to facilitate the success of the virtual program. We ask for your patience and understanding as we work through very difficult logistical issues in creating a virtual program in a few short days. There are many uncertainties and unknowns as we balance the need to act responsibly in the face of the growing COVID-19 pandemic while doing our best to protect the integrity of the science that serves those living with or at risk of HIV.”

Stalwart organizers with their boots on the ground to help lead conference sessions included Drs. Wafaa El-Sadr of ICAP at Columbia University; Judith Currier of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA); Elaine J. Abrams, also of ICAP; Michael Saag of the University of Alabama; and Joseph J. Eron of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Presenters from around the world submitted a recording of their presentation.

COVID-19 session

CROI 2020 turned its attention to the coronavirus pandemic, holding a special session on COVID-19.

Dr. Zunyou Wu, director of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in Beijing, talked about the spread of COVID-19 in China and the country’s efforts to control the disease. Watch the webcast presentation at croiwebcasts.org/p/2020croi/croi/CR-SS1-3.

John T. Brooks, MD, of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), discussed COVID-19 disease and what was known and unknown at the time. He also discussed populations most at risk (see page 20). The webcast of Dr. Brooks’ talk is at croiwebcasts.org/p/2020croi/croi/CR-SS1-1.

“Persons with medical comorbidity and advanced age are at increased risk for severe illness and death,” said Dr. Brooks. “In the Chinese data I showed previously, persons with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or chronic respiratory disease had a case fatality rate greater than 5%.”

In addition, Ralph S. Baric, PhD, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, addressed the virology of coronaviruses. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), spoke to “The Research Response to COVID-19: A View from NIAID.”

Webcasts of these presentations are at croiwebcasts.org/s/2020croi/SS-1.