Oxford researchers reported Thursday 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 efficiency of contemporary medicines.
Their findings, published in the journal “Science,” on Thursday, revealed that individuals infected with the “VB variant” had 3.5 to 5.5 times more quantities of the virus in their blood than those infected with other versions, as well as a more quickly diminishing immune system.
The researchers, who were located in the UK and overseas, were working on the BEEHIVE project, which aimed to figure out why some strains of HIV inflict more harm to an individual’s immune system than others when left untreated, with the end outcome being AIDS. To do so, scientists looked at samples from HIV-positive people in Europe and Uganda, as well as samples from previous studies, in the hopes of finding common alterations that would make the virus more dangerous.
During their search, they uncovered a group of 17 people, mostly from the Netherlands, who all had the same HIV-1 variation, the most prevalent kind of HIV. This particular strain of the virus—dubbed the “VB variant”—appeared to have an unusually high level of pathogenicity. In practice, this meant that people with VB had considerably higher viral hundreds than normal, and their CD4 cell counts, which are the immunological cells that HIV predominantly infects and destroys, plummeted.
The study also discovered that after commencing treatment, those with the VB variation had similar immune system recovery and survival rates as people with other HIV variants.
“There’s no cause for alarm with this new viral variant,” said Oxford epidemiologist Chris Wymant, the paper’s lead author, in an interview with AFP.
According to the researchers, the variation likely emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the Netherlands, but began to diminish about 2010.
Because current therapies appear to still be effective against the variation, the study team concludes that widespread HIV treatment in the Netherlands did not contribute to the virus’s development and that early identification and treatment are critical.
In a press release announcing the findings, co-author Christophe Fraser, also an Oxford researcher, said, “Our findings emphasize 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 assumption that viruses may evolve to become more virulent, a widely held belief with few real-world instances. Another recent example is the Delta form of the new coronavirus.
According to Wymant, the finding of the HIV variety should serve as a “be a warning that we should never be overconfident about saying viruses will just evolve to become milder,”