By Kate Kelland and Roxanne Liu

LONDON/BEIJING (Reuters) – HIV patients in China risk running out of life-saving AIDS drugs because quarantines and lockdowns aimed at containing the coronavirus disease outbreak mean they cannot replenish vital medicine stocks, United Nations AIDS agency said on Wednesday.

UNAIDS said it had surveyed more than 1,000 people with HIV in China and found that the outbreak of the coronavirus, now known as COVID-19, is having a “major impact” on their lives.

The outbreak so far infected more than 74,000 in China, and killed 2,004 of them. Outside China, five deaths and 827 cases have been reported so far.

Nearly a third of the HIV positive people surveyed by UNAIDS said lockdowns and restrictions on movement in China meant they were at risk of running out of their HIV treatment in the coming days.

Of these, almost half – or 48.6% – said they did not know where to collect their next antiretroviral therapy refill from.

“People living with HIV must continue to get the HIV medicines they need to keep them alive,” UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima said in a statement. “We must ensure that everyone who needs HIV treatment gets it, no matter where they are.”

UNAIDS says that according to Chinese government sources there were an estimated 1.25 million people with HIV in China at the end of 2018.

One HIV-positive volunteer AIDS campaigner in China told Reuters he has set up a group chat that includes more than 100 HIV patients, mostly in Hubei province – epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak – where he is helping patients to share limited stocks of medicines between them.

Some HIV patients are scared of letting other people know why they are desperate to get out of the cities.

“(Patients are) very panicked, very panicked, and in the group chat I have to comfort them constantly,” said the campaigner, who did not want to give his name. “For patients, medicine is important, treatment is important. This could be as important as front-line relief supplies.”

Adding to the problem of potential shortages is an emerging practice of people not infeGcted with HIV appealing to patients with the AIDS-causing virus to share their medicine as potential experimental treatment against the new coronavirus.

Although there is no evidence from clinical trials, China’s National Health Commission said the HIV drug lopinavir/ritonavir could be tried in COVID-19 patients.

That triggered a rush for drugs such as Kaletra, also known as Aluvia, which is drugmaker AbbVie’s off-patent version of lopinavir/ritonavir.

UNAIDS said lockdowns in various cities have also meant that people with HIV who had travelled away from their home towns have not been able to return home and access HIV services, including treatment, from their usual providers.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland in London and Roxanne Liu in Beijing, editing by Steve Orlofsky)