The International AIDS Society, the organizer of the bi-annual AIDS conference, found itself in the unique position of convening AIDS 2020 during the rapidly developing new pandemic of COVID-19. In the midst of travel restrictions and shelter-in-place mandates in many countries as well as a desire to protect HIV participants from exposure to the new virus, the IAS had already switched for the first time to a virtual format for its proceedings this summer.
Historically, a different city in the world hosts the bi-annual conference, the largest HIV/AIDS gathering in the world. San Francisco previously hosted the AIDS conference in 1990. That occasion made history when AIDS activists, led primarily by ACT UP San Francisco, disrupted a major address by Health and Human Services director Louis Sullivan. Shouting “Shame! Shame! Shame!” the protesters made it impossible for Sullivan to be heard. The incident reflected the enormous anger and desperation of People with AIDS at the federal government’s slow and disorganized pursuit of HIV treatments and cure.
This summer AIDS 2020 returns to the Bay Area for the first time in 30 years. Organizers stated that the virtual conference will retain its focus on San Francisco and Oakland and their respective responses to HIV/AIDS. San Francisco is known for its “model of care” and for its researchers, including Jay Levy, MD who became the first American to independently identify the AIDS virus.
The protests that marked the 1990 conference have been repeated to varying degrees in the following AIDS international conferences. Activists and many community-based AIDS workers objected that the United States, especially San Francisco/Oakland, were inappropriate sites given the Trump era discrimination of immigrants from third world countries and those from marginalized groups. When the IAS refused a change of venue, the activists organized an alternative conference, HIV 2020: Community Reclaiming the Global Response scheduled to take place in Mexico City July 5-7. However, COVID-19 overturned these plans as well. The Mexican government has suspended all large events in the country due to COVID-19 concerns through August, and HIV 2020 has been cancelled. Other options are being explored.