By John Ikani
A new, highly virulent strain of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) has been discovered in the Netherlands. Its origin has been traced as far back as to the 1990s using genetic sequence analysis.
An analysis of more than 100 infected people suggests that the variant boosts the number of viral particles in a person’s blood, making them more likely to transmit the virus.
Researchers at Oxford University who identified the strain reported in the journal “Science,” that patients infected with the “VB variant” had 3.5 to 5.5 times higher viral levels in their blood than those infected with alternative variants, along with a faster deterioration of their immune system.
It was found, however, that when individuals with the VB variant began treatment, they had similar immune system recovery and survival to individuals with other HIV variants.
In total, the team found 109 people infected with the VB variant, with only four living outside the Netherlands, but still in western Europe.
According to Oxford epidemiologist Chris Wyman, the lead author of the paper, there is no reason for alarm.
The researchers believe the variant emerged in the Netherlands in the late 1980s and early 1990s but started declining around 2010.
Since modern interventions still seem to work on the variant, the research team believes that widespread HIV treatment in the Netherlands did not contribute to the virus’s evolution and that early detection and treatment are paramount.
“Our findings emphasize the importance of World Health Organization guidance that individuals at risk of acquiring HIV have access to regular testing to allow early diagnosis, followed by immediate treatment,” said co-author Christophe Fraser, also an Oxford researcher, in a press release announcing the findings.
The work also supports the theory that viruses can evolve to become more virulent, a widely-hypothesized idea for which few real-world examples have been found.
The Delta variant of the novel coronavirus was another recent example.
The discovery of the HIV variant should therefore “be a warning that we should never be overconfident about saying viruses will just evolve to become milder,” said Wyman.
HIV is one of the fastest-mutating viruses ever studied — versions of the virus vary from person to person and sometimes even in a single individual.