By Peter McLaren-Kennedy • 04 February 2022 • 7:35
Source: Big Data Institute
Oxford universotyA HIV new variant has been discovered in the Netherlands that is more virulent and harmful to health according to a study led by the Big Data Institute at the University of Oxford in the UK. The finding published in the journal Science says that it was always thought the HIV-1 virus could mutate and this study confirms as much.
HIV Aids affects 38 million people worldwide and has caused 33 million deaths to date.
Individuals infected with the new “VB variant” (for virulent B subtype) showed significant differences before antiretroviral treatment compared to individuals infected with other HIV variants. Those with the VB variant had a viral load (the level of virus in the blood) between 3.5 and 5.5 times higher. The rate of decline in CD4 cells (the hallmark of immune system damage caused by HIV) was also found to occur twice as fast in individuals with the BV variant, putting them at much higher risk of developing AIDS faster. At the same time, individuals with the VB variant also showed a higher risk of transmitting the virus to other people.
The researchers found that although the variant is more harmful and transmissible, once treatment started patients with the VB variant had similar immune system recovery as those with other HIV variants.
However, they stress that since the VB variant causes a more rapid decline in the strength of the immune system, it is critical that individuals are diagnosed early and begin treatment as soon as possible.
Further research to understand the mechanism that makes the VB variant more transmissible and more damaging to the immune system could result in new antiretroviral drugs that target the next variant.
The VB variant is characterised by having many mutations spread throughout the genome, which means that no single genetic cause can be identified at this time.
Lead author Dr Chris Wymant, from the University of Oxford Big Data Institute and Nuffield Department of Medicine, said: “Before this study it was known that the genetics of the HIV virus were relevant to virulence, which implied that the evolution of a new variant could change its health impact. The discovery of the VB variant has demonstrated this, providing a rare example of the risk posed by the evolution of viral virulence.”
Lead author Professor Christophe Fraser, from the University of Oxford Big Data Institute and Nuffield Department of Medicine, added that the new findings “underline the importance of World Health Organisation guidance, so that people at risk of contracting HIV have access to regular tests that allow early diagnosis, followed by immediate treatment.
“This limits the time that HIV can damage a person’s immune system and put their health at risk. It also ensures that HIV is suppressed as soon as possible, preventing transmission to others,” he notes.
The VB variant was first identified in 17 HIV-positive people from the BEEHIVE project, an ongoing study collecting samples from across Europe and Uganda. Since 15 of these people came from the Netherlands, the researchers analysed data from a cohort of more than 6,700 HIV-positive people in that country. A further 92 individuals with the variant who were identified all came from the Netherlands, bringing the total to 109.
By analysing the patterns of genetic variation between the samples, the researchers estimate that the VB variant first emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s in the Netherlands. It spread more rapidly than other HIV variants during the 2000s, but its spread has slowed since in the last decade. The research team believes that the VB variant emerged despite widespread treatment in the Netherlands.
Individuals with the more virulent and harmful VB variant showed typical characteristics of people living with HIV in the Netherlands, including age, gender and the suspected mode of transmission. This indicates that the increased transmissibility of the BV variant is due to a property of the virus itself, rather than a characteristic of people with the virus.
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Originally from South Africa, Peter is based on the Costa Blanca and is a web reporter for the Euro Weekly News covering international and Spanish national news.
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