Virulent HIV Strain Identified In Netherlands

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“There’s no cause for alarm with this new viral variant,” said Oxford epidemiologist Chris Wymant, the lead author on the paper, in an interview with AFP.

According to the researchers, the variant likely arose in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the Netherlands but declined 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 Wymant to AFP.

The team found 109 people infected with the VB variant, with only four living outside the Netherlands but still in western Europe.

HIV is constantly evolving, so much so that each person infected has a slightly different version.

The VB variant, however, was found to have over 500 mutations.

“Finding a new variant is normal, but finding a new variant with unusual properties is not—especially one with increased virulence,” Wyman explained.

The research team first identified the VB variant in 17 HIV positive individuals by parsing a broad data set from the BEEHIVE project, a data collection, and analysis initiative in Europe and Uganda.

Because 15 of the 17 were from the Netherlands, they further studied data from 6,700 HIV-positive Dutch individuals, identifying 92 others.

The earliest appearance of the VB variant in their data was found in a patient diagnosed in 1992 who had an early version of the variant, and the most recent in 2014.

In patients infected with the VB variant, CD4 decline occurred twice as fast compared to other variants, “placing them at risk of developing AIDS much more rapidly,” the researchers said.

In addition to its increased impact on the immune system, the team also found the VB variant to be more highly transmissible.

They came to that conclusion after comparing the different versions of the VB variant drawn from infected patients.

“Because the VB variant causes a more rapid decline in immune system strength, this makes it critical that individuals are diagnosed early and start treatment as soon as possible,” the press statement noted.

“This limits the amount of time HIV can damage an individual’s immune system and jeopardize their health,” added Fraser.

Fraser is also the principal investigator of the BEEHIVE project, which was launched in 2014 to gather data on how mutations in the HIV can lead to varying degrees of severity among patients.

Those differences have previously been thought to mostly relate to the strength of individuals’ immune systems.

The researchers said they could not identify which genetic mutation in the VB variant caused its virulence, but they hope future studies will be able to.

Source: Medindia

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