Netherland: New highly virulent HIV strain discovered, says Oxford researchers

highly virulent

The discovery of a highly virulent strain of HIV that has been lurking in the Netherlands for decades, but is “no cause for alarm” due to the effectiveness of modern treatments, according to Oxford researchers.

Patients infected with the “VB variant” had 3.5 to 5.5 times higher levels of the virus in their blood than those infected with other variants, as well as a faster fading immune system, according to their findings, which were published Thursday in the journal “Science.”

Individuals with the VB variant, on the other hand, had similar immune system recovery and survival after starting treatment as those with other HIV variants.

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

According to the researchers, the variant first appeared in the Netherlands in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but then began to decline around 2010.

Because modern interventions appear to be effective against 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 critical.

In a press release announcing the findings, co-author Christophe Fraser, also an Oxford researcher, said, “Our findings emphasise 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.”

The research also backs up the theory that viruses can evolve to become more virulent, a widely held belief with few real-world examples.

Another recent example is the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus.

According to Wymant, the discovery of the HIV variant should serve as a “warning that we should never be overconfident in saying viruses will simply evolve to become milder.”

The team discovered 109 people infected with the VB variant in total, with only four of them living outside of the Netherlands but still in Western Europe.

– 500 different mutations –

The HIV virus is constantly evolving, to the point where each infected person has a slightly different strain.

The VB variant, on the other hand, was discovered to contain over 500 mutations.

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

By parsing a large data set from the BEEHIVE project, a data collection and analysis initiative in Europe and Uganda, the research team discovered the VB variant in 17 HIV positive individuals.

They looked at data from 6,700 HIV-positive Dutch people and found 92 more because 15 of the 17 were from the Netherlands.

The VB variant first appeared in their data in a person diagnosed in 1992 with an early version of the variant, and the most recent appearance was in 2014.

Other researchers have since discovered more people who were diagnosed with the variant after 2014.

Doctors typically monitor the decline of CD4 T-cells, which are targeted by the HIV virus and crucial for protecting the body against infections, to determine how HIV affects the immune system.

CD4 decline was twice as fast in patients infected with the VB variant compared to other variants, “putting them at risk of developing AIDS much more quickly,” according to the researchers.

The VB variant was also found to be more highly transmissible, in addition to having a greater impact on the immune system.

After comparing different versions of the VB variant extracted from infected patients, they came to that conclusion.

Because they were so similar, it’s possible that the virus spread quickly to another person before accumulating many mutations.

– Early diagnosis and treatment are “critical” –

“Because the VB variant causes a faster decline in immune system strength, it’s critical that people are diagnosed early and treated as soon as possible,” according to the press release.

“This reduces the amount of time HIV can harm an individual’s immune system and put their health at risk,” Fraser explained.

Fraser is also the principal investigator of the BEEHIVE project, which began in 2014 and aims to learn more about how HIV virus mutations can cause varying degrees of severity in patients.

Previously, those differences were thought to be mostly due to the strength of people’s immune systems.

According to the researchers, they were unable to determine which genetic mutation in the VB variant caused its virulence, but they hope that future research will be able to do so.

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