New, more virulent HIV strain reported in the Netherlands 40 years after pandemic began

The new HIV variant is a cause for concern since these are figures for a country with high awareness about and monitoring of the disease

By Taran Deol
Published: Friday 04 February 2022
Non-human African primates are the source for HIV. The African green monkey is the source of the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus, the sooty mangabey is the source of HIV-2 and the Common Chimpanzee the source of HIV-1. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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.

This is the main group of HIV-1 that triggered the HIV pandemic worldwide in 1981. The virus itself first emerged in 1920 in Kinshasa (then Leopoldville), Belgian Congo.

The strain’s high virulence is calculated based on viral load and CD4 counts — “the concentration of CD4+ T cells in peripheral blood, which tracks immune system damage by the virus”.

The BEEHIVE project is an ongoing study funded by the European Research Council that looks at what causes a more severe impact on a person infected with HIV.

The project identified 17 individuals whose viral loads were ‘highly elevated’. Fifteen of these were from the Netherlands and one each from Belgium and Switzerland.

The scope of the study was expanded to include 6,706 participants to further understand the new variant. Ninety-two of these individuals were infected with the virulent strain.

The high viral load indicated that those infected with HIV are more likely to transmit it to others, while CD4 counts are representative of how the immune system will respond. A low figure indicated a greater risk of developing Autoimmune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) more rapidly.

The findings on the subtype-B variant (VB variant), published in the Science journal February 3, 2022, showed that for males between the ages of 30 and 39, “advanced HIV is expected to be reached in only nine months (without treatment) from the time of diagnosis for VB individuals, compared with 36 months (without treatment) for non-VB individuals.”

The decline into advanced HIV is even more rapid in the older age group.

The new variant is a cause for concern since these are figures for a country with high awareness about and monitoring of the disease.

“In contexts with less awareness and monitoring, in which diagnosis often occurs later in infection, the probability of reaching advanced HIV before diagnosis would be even greater,” the study noted.

Much like COVID-19, HIV too is a ribonucleic acid virus. Therefore, it is in its nature to mutate.

In the backdrop of omicron — the fifth variant of concern — these new findings are indicative of the fact that a virus doesn’t always mutate to become more infectious and less virulent.

While experts have cautioned against these findings, stressing on the need to double down on monitoring and sequencing, the treatment remains the same.

“Our discovery of a highly virulent and transmissible viral variant emphasises the importance of access to frequent testing for at-risk individuals and of adherence to recommendations for immediate treatment initiation for every person living with HIV,” the study stated in conclusion.

HIV has already been recorded as one of the most rapidly mutating viruses. According to a report in Nature, the virus genes vary from one person to another who has tested positive for it.

At times, it differs within one individual. At least 37.7 million people, the majority of whom are adults, across the world are living with HIV. Between 2010 and 2020, HIV cases have reduced by 31 per cent according to UNAIDS.

However, since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, testing and treatment has faced a setback as resources were redirected.

“Testing declined by 41 per cent and referrals for diagnosis and treatment declined by 37 per cent during the first COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020,” The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria reported.

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