As if HIV and AIDS wasn’t scary enough… The disease has stricken the Black community for decades and was starting to see some action against the disease, but for the first time in 19 years, a team of scientists has detected a new strain of HIV.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that mutations in a virus can significantly change a pathogen’s infectiousness and severity of disease.
Now, new research from the University of Oxford finds a new variant of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, that is potentially more infectious and could more seriously affect the immune system.
So far, 109 people, most of whom live in the Netherlands, have the variant.
New HIV variant causes illness twice as fast
The new strain, called the VB variant, damages the immune system, weakening people’s ability to fight everyday infections and diseases much faster than the previous HIV strains, scientists say.
It also means that people who contract the new variant may develop AIDS faster.
Researchers also found that VB has a viral load (the amount of virus detected in blood) 3.5 to 5.5 times higher than the current strain, indicating that it could also be more infectious.
Other HIV Strains
The last strain that was found, called HIV-1 group M subtype L, is extremely rare and can be detected by Abbott Lab’s current screening system. The company’s tests screen more than 60 percent of the global blood supply, she adds, noting it must detect every strain and “has to be right every time.”
In the early days of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, some blood donors unaware that they had HIV added the virus to the blood supply. A large number of patients who needed regular blood transfusions—among them, many with hemophilia—ended up contracting HIV and often dying. The supply has been essentially clear of HIV for years, and Rodgers says efforts such as Abbott’s will help keep it that way.
“It can be a real challenge for diagnostic tests,” Mary Rodgers, a co-author of the report and a principal scientist at Abbott, said. Her company tests more than 60% of the world’s blood supply, she said, and they have to look for new strains and track those in circulation so “we can accurately detect it, no matter where it happens to be in the world.”
More than 37 million people live with HIV worldwide—the most ever recorded. “People think it’s not a problem anymore, and we’ve got it under control. But, really, we don’t,” Sacha says.
Antiretroviral drugs inhibit the virus’s reproduction and spread, but they have significant side effects, he says. Even when drugs keep HIV under control, patients are at higher risk for blood cancer, cardiovascular complications, and other problems.
The danger from the virus persists. A radically new viral strain could evade detection in the blood supply, avoid being controlled by drugs and render future vaccines ineffective, Sacha says. “Viruses break through all the time, and we’re not ready to deal with them,” he adds, “just like what happened with the original HIV.”
For scientists to be able to declare that this was a new subtype, three cases of it must be detected independently. The first two were found in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1983 and 1990.
The two strains were “very unusual and didn’t match other strains,” Rodgers said. The third sample found in Congo was collected in 2001 as a part of an HIV viral diversity study (Notice, that all these strains were found in Africa).
The sample was small, and while it seemed similar to the two older samples, scientists wanted to test the whole genome to be sure. At the time, there wasn’t technology to determine if this was the new subtype.
New Strain Of HIV Discovered. Should We Be concerned?
Many viruses and bacteria that cause disease have different strains or genetic varieties. Right now, we are in flu season. We get flu vaccinations each year because the main