Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Community Engagement activities of an HIV vaccine study

Fundación Huésped’s Head of the Laboratory, Ana Gun (left), with members of Casa Trans at their HIV-testing center, Buenos Aires. April 15th, 2021.
Fundación Huésped’s Head of the Laboratory, Ana Gun (left), with members of Casa Trans at their HIV-testing center, Buenos Aires. April 15th, 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic has become an integral part of the community engagement agenda in Fundaci.n Hu.sped, including but not limited to the Mosaico study. The health crisis has generated a new focus for work considering the organization’s approach to prevention and care, especially for the same populations enrolled in the Mosaico study.

Community engagement at our site was not established solely based on the fulfillment of Mosaico’s or any other study’s recruitment necessities, nor are our goals abandoned after studies are completed. Research constitutes one component within the scope of a greater framework: the provision of a comprehensive and intersectional approach to the complex and diverse reality of people, especially those belonging to key populations in the HIV spectrum.

Thus, in the context of COVID-19 urgency, our education and recruitment agendas could not be approached without first responding to the community’s needs. New projects were developed to cover basic needs of our partner community-based organizations and to sustain retention in care of transgender people by delivering home-care.

In that respect, COVID-19-related information and psychosocial support were provided on different topics including circulation permits, case management, testing, prevention, and access to health, among others. Also, multimedia resources on hygiene and sanitation measures; promotion of virtual sex; COVID-19 prevention and risk reduction measures for sex workers; and research and development on health sciences were designed and disseminated.

As a non-profit organization, Fundacion Huesped was able to sustain services that were interrupted in other health settings that were redirected to provide diagnosis, care and treatment of COVID-19, such as:

  • STI testing,
  • Comprehensive trans healthcare (especially the endocrinological clinic), 
  • Personalized counseling, 
  • Individual psychotherapy, 
  • Support groups for people living with HIV, 
  • Legal advice, 
  • Online courses on comprehensive sexual health, and 
  • Other studies conducted at our Clinical Research Site.

These services are free of charge, and due to the pandemic, the have shifted to virtual modalities: phone or video call, website, e-mail, social networks, limiting in-person services to cases where technology was not available.

Fundación Huésped’s Peer-Navigator, Mariana Duarte (center), at the HIV-testing center at Casa Trans, Buenos Aires. April 15th, 2021.
Fundación Huésped’s Peer-Navigator, Mariana Duarte (center), at the HIV-testing center at Casa Trans, Buenos Aires. April 15th, 2021.

All these activities, including a strong presence of the community engagement team and the overall organization in the public arena, were fundamental when Mosaico’s enrollment efforts resumed. As some volunteers stated, their original interest in the study was because it was our organization who was conducting the study.

As with many clinical trials, Mosaico enrollment was impacted by the community’s doubts regarding medical, scientific and pharmaceutical industry interests. These were sometimes mixed with anti-occidental feelings about the West, apprehension about biomedical approaches, and even negationism to deny history. These feelings are also fueled by the absence of an advanced cure initiative at our site, which leads to perceptions that the development of an HIV-vaccine is a nonstructural solution to the epidemic.

Fundación Huésped’s CRS Coordinator, Valeria Fink, explaining HPV transmission in a video posted on the organization’s YouTube Channel.
Fundación Huésped’s CRS Coordinator, Valeria Fink, explaining HPV transmission in a video posted on the organization’s YouTube Channel.
A selection of live streams about comprehensive sexual health and family planning information available on the organization’s Instagram profile.
A selection of live streams about comprehensive sexual health and family planning information available on the organization’s Instagram profile.
Fundación Huésped’s proctologist, Luciana La Rosa, discussing enemas on a presentation about Anal Health on a Zoom call that was posted on the organization’s Facebook page.
Fundación Huésped’s proctologist, Luciana La Rosa, discussing enemas on a presentation about Anal Health on a Zoom call that was posted on the organization’s Facebook page.
Fundación Huésped’s endocrinologist, Noelia Cabrera, doing a live Q&A on hormone therapy on the organization’s Facebook page.
Fundación Huésped’s endocrinologist, Noelia Cabrera, doing a live Q&A on hormone therapy on the organization’s Facebook page.

 

Therefore, reinstating confidence in the institutions implementing clinical studies becomes a key asset, as encouragement of participation is inspired by trust and good will behind the motives of the research. Addressing the current needs of key populations has to be a priority in order to bolster and preserve the fidelity of potential participants, since it’s this closeness with people through the community engagement agenda that paves the way for success.

Gaston Devisich and Nadir Cardozo are the Community Engagement Representatives, Solange Fabian and Mariana Duarte are the Transgender Peer-Navigators, Damian Falcon Werthein and Agustin Espain coordinate Study Participants’ Contact & Follow-Up for the Fundación Huésped (Almagro) Clinical Research Site in Buenos Aires, Argentina.