A New Study Reveals A More Highly-Virulent and More Health-Damaging HIV Virus Variant

In the latest Science journal, researchers publish their discovery of a highly virulent HIV strain. In a study lead by scientists at the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute, a more contagious strain of HIV was discovered in the Netherlands.

According to statistics, HIV-1 already affects about 33 million people worldwide and has caused nearly 33 million deaths (www.unaids.org).

The initial group of HIV-1 responsible for the initial global pandemic first emerged in 1920 and had diversified into subtypes by 1960. “The subtypes, and the most common circulating recombinant forms (CRFs) between the subtypes, took different routes for global spread, establishing strong associations with geography, ethnicity, and mode of transmission.” There is a difference in the subtypes, but it has been challenging to “disentangle genotypes effects of virulence from confounding effects” while maintaining large sample sizes because of the strong associations between viral, host, and epidemiological facts.

The virulence of HIV-1 is generally measured by viral loads, which is the concentration of viral particles in the blood plasma and CD4 counts which is the concentration of CD4+T cells in peripheral blood that tracks immune system damage caused by the virus.

When successfully, treated, antiretroviral drugs suppresses the viral load and disrupts the decline in CD4 counts that would otherwise lead to AIDS.

Interestingly, both viral loads and rate of CD4 decline are found to be “heritable properties” which means they are causally affected by viral genetics that lead to a correlation between the host and whoever they infect. This knowledge has always lead to the proposition that viral load and CD4 cell decline could modify with the emergence of a new variant of the HIV-1 virus. The researchers reported that they have substantiated their suspicions with empirical evidence of the discovery of a subtype-B variant of HIV-1. This “VB variant” (for virulent subtype B) has exceptionally high virulence and has been circulating within the Netherlands.

The differences between individuals infected with VB variant before antiretroviral treatment compared to the prior HIV variants are disturbing:

  • The VB variant individuals had a viral load between 3.5 and 5.5 times higher than the prior HIV-1 variants.

  • The VB variant individuals’ rate of CD4 cell decline occurred twice as fast as individuals with other HIV variants, therefore, placing VB variant individuals at risk of developing AIDS much more rapidly.

  • VB variant individuals showed an increased risk of transmitting the virus to others than the prior HIV variants.

Research indicated that individuals with the VB variant had similar immune system recovery and survival to individuals with other HIV variants. But because the VB variant causes a more repaid decline in immune system strength, it’s critical that individuals get diagnosed early and start antiretroviral treatment as soon as possible. Does the current drugs on market successful treat this new VB variant if not treated in the early stage?

Additional research is needed to allow scientists to understand the causes of the VB variant and why its more transmissible and damaging to the immune system. Also, with this additional research could reveal the need for the next generation of antiretroviral drugs needed to battle the new and evolving variants being discovered by scientists..

This study reported in Science indicated that the researchers received grants from the Swiss National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Swiss HIV Cohort Study, Merck, Gilead Sciences, ViiV Healthcare, Mepha, and Sandoz.


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