A more virulent and contagious variant of HIV has been identified

It does not pose a pandemic risk, unlike Covid-19, but this work is a reminder that the fight against HIV is still far from over.

You already know the countless variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused the original Covid-19. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Researchers from the University of Oxford have just presented the discovery of a new highly virulent variant of HIV-1, the virus responsible for AIDS.

When viruses like HIV or SARS-CoV-2 replicate their genetic material, the cellular machinery regularly makes some mistakes. The genome therefore tends to undergo mutations that can be transmitted to offspring. These are usually repaired by the cellular machinery. But over the course of replications, this process can lead to significant mutations; the structure and functioning of the virus are therefore altered. We can then witness the appearance of variants, which are very briefly other versions of the original virus.

In the case of SARS-CoV-2, these viruses are called Gamma, Delta or even omicron; we are now discovering HIV-VB, which English researchers have identified in 17 HIV-positive patients in Europe and Uganda. This is very far from being the first variant identified in HIV; it is even one of the fastest mutating viruses.

More virulent and more contagious than HIV-1

The bad news is that this one would be more virulent than the others. After analyzing samples from patients with the variant, the researchers noticed that they had a viral load on average 5.5 times higher than patients with the most common strain, HIV-1. Moreover, it would also cause a “twice as fast reduction of TCD4 lymphocytes”, essential players in the immune response.

Concretely, this means that it would also be more virulent. People infected with this variant are likely to develop Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome – the last phase of HIV infection – more rapidly than with other forms. According to the prestigious newspaper Nature, which devoted an article to this discovery, patients with HIV-1 develop AIDS 6 to 7 years after infection. In the case of the VB variant, this period would fall below the three-year mark.

A booster shot for public opinion

Fortunately, this does not mean that there is an imminent risk of an HIV pandemic. “We are not overly worried about this new variant”, explains Meg Doherty, director of the WHO control programme. The institution also specifies that this variant responds well to the antiretroviral treatments currently available on the market.

On the other hand, it is an excellent opportunity to recall that even if the coronavirus has been engulfing all the epidemiological news for two years now, it is far from being the only infection to represent a real public health problem. HIV is becoming rarer in the scientific literature, it is a fact; but it has not ceased to wreak havoc in certain regions for all that. It is therefore very important to continue the efforts already in place in terms of prevention and clinical management. An essential condition to get closer to its total eradication, pending the finalization of the solutions already under study.

The text of the study is available here.

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