Scientists in the Netherlands have discovered a new highly pathogenic mutation of the HIV virus that appears to have been circulating in the country since 1990 but has not been seen until now. In addition to the Netherlands, two more people were found with a similar mutation: in Belgium and Switzerland.
This is the VB mutation of the HIV virus that causes AIDS, and it is possible that there are others in Europe that have not been found. However, this requires a new genetic analysis based on the genome of the VB strain, the researchers say.
The good news is that while the new mutation is more contagious to humans and increases the likelihood of AIDS, existing drugs are still effective against it, stopping both the worsening of AIDS and the transmission of the virus.
The new strain can be detected by currently available tests. However, this discovery in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic is a reminder and a warning that a rapidly evolving virus does not always become less dangerous over time.
Molecular epidemiologist Emma Hodcroft of the Swiss University of Bern noted that recent reports that the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron mutation causes milder Covid-19 disease (and less deadly) are not entirely true. According to her, “it doesn’t work that way. And although HIV and SARS-CoV-2 differ in many ways, it is not certain that the coronavirus will become “easier” over time.”
Researchers at the BEEHIVE HIV Biology and Epidemiology Program, led by Dr Chris Wimand of Oxford University School of Medicine, who published the study in the journal Science, analyzed blood samples from 6,700 HIV-infected people, of whom 109 were found to have new mutations. Those infected with a previously unknown VB virus in the body had a threshold 3.5-5.5 times higher (higher viral load). They also had lower levels of antibodies (decrease in CD4 T-immunocytes) against HIV and an increased chance of transmitting the virus to others.
According to the World Health Organization, about 38 million people worldwide are infected with HIV, and 33 million have died. Over the past decade, the number of new infections has declined due to the widespread use of drugs that kill the virus. It has been found that people with the VB mutation are more likely to develop AIDS within two to three years of infection, faster than usual (six to ten years) if the patient is not receiving adequate antiretroviral therapy during this time.
Researchers believe the new strain of HIV warrants increased vigilance but does not pose a major public health threat because it responds to available treatments and does not reduce the effectiveness of pre-infective drugs. “All the tools in our arsenal continue to work,” said Joel Wertheim, an evolutionary biologist and epidemiologist at the University of California, San Diego.
HIV is one of the fastest mutating viruses ever discovered. The disease varies from person to person, sometimes even infecting the same person repeatedly over time. A discovery in the Netherlands shows how multiple mutations in a single strain of HIV can make it particularly pathogenic and transmissible.
In any case, scientists say the discovery shows that it is more important than ever for high-risk people to get tested for HIV regularly, and for carriers of the virus, to start treatment immediately. People with HIV, no matter what mutation they are infected with (including VB), can now, thanks to medications, have an almost normal life expectancy. If they regularly adhere to the doses of their treatment, HIV becomes “silent” in their body, but is not completely eradicated.