The new HIV variant that has been discovered – with 109 cases found to date across Europe and Uganda appears to cause faster disease progression compared with other versions of the virus.
The new ‘super-strain’ – called “VB” – was first found in the Netherlands by researchers at Oxford University as part of a study that collects samples.
Initially, 15 of the samples showing a “virulent” variant came from the Netherlands, with two from Uganda.
Data from over 6,700 HIV-positive people then discovered 92 more with the variant, researchers from the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute found.
The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infects and destroys immune cells called CD4 cells in the body, causing the number of these cells to plummet.
If left untreated, the infection then progresses to AIDS. In people infected with the newfound HIV variant, called the VB variant, the CD4 counts fall at about twice the rate as those of people infected with closely related HIV strains, meaning those of the same genetic subtype (B).
Without treatment, infections with the VB variant would likely progress to AIDS, on average, within two to three years of a person’s initial HIV diagnosis.
With other versions of the virus, a similar degree of decline occurs about six to seven years after diagnosis, on average.
The Aids-causing virus affects 38 million people worldwide – and has claimed 33 million lives.
Scientists believe that what they call the ‘VB variant’ has been in circulation since the late 1980s.
Fortunately, they found that modern treatments are effective against the strain as individuals with the variant had similar immune system recovery and survival to individuals with other HIV variants and the research team stressed that the findings are no cause for alarm.
What is the difference between the VB variant and other HIV variants?
Individuals infected with the new VB variant showed significant differences before treatment compared with individuals infected with other HIV variants.
Individuals with the VB variant had between 3.5 to 5.5 times higher levels of the virus in their blood.
In addition, the rate of CD4 cell decline – the hallmark of immune system damage by HIV – occurred twice as fast in individuals with the VB variant, placing them at risk of developing AIDS much more rapidly.
Individuals with the newly-discovered variant also showed an increased risk of transmitting the virus to others.
How did the researchers discover the VB variant?
The VB variant was first identified in 17 HIV-positive individuals from the BEEHIVE project, an ongoing study that collects samples from across Europe and Uganda.
Since 15 of these people came from the Netherlands, the researchers then analyzed data from a cohort of over 6,700 HIV-positive individuals in the Netherlands.
This identified an additional 92 individuals with the variant, from all regions of the Netherlands, bringing the total to 109.
The individuals with the VB variant showed typical characteristics for people living with HIV in the country, including age, sex, and suspected mode of transmission.
Researchers say this indicates that the increased transmissibility of the VB variant is due to a property of the virus itself, rather than a characteristic of people with the virus.
What should be done now?
“Our findings emphasize the importance of World Health Organisation [WHO] guidance that individuals at risk of acquiring HIV have access to regular testing to allow early diagnosis, followed by immediate treatment,” said Christophe Fraser, senior author of the research and professor at the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute and Nuffield Department of Medicine.
“This limits the amount of time HIV can damage an individual’s immune system and jeopardise their health. It also ensures that HIV is suppressed as quickly as possible, which prevents transmission to other individuals,” he added.
When a person living with HIV is on regular treatment, it lowers the amount of virus in their body to undetectable levels and there is zero risk of passing it on to others; researchers say this is still the case with the newly-discovered variant.
However, the pace of HIV testing declined almost uniformly across the world in the last two years and fewer people living with HIV initiated treatment in 2020 in 40 of 50 countries reporting data to UNAIDS, the joint UN programme for HIV and AIDs advocacy.
The COVID-19 pandemic saw resources in many countries diverted and STI and HIV testing sites in particular were severely affected. HIV prevention services have also been impacted.
In 2020, harm reduction services for people who use drugs were disrupted in 65 per cent of 130 countries surveyed, according to a report from UNAIDS.
A leading clinical infectious diseases epidemiologist, Dr Salim Abdool Karim, says while the newly discovered HIV variant can spread faster than its predecessor, it can be treated with standards ARV medication.
Karim was speaking to eNCA on February 9, Wednesday morning, just days after international medical teams announced the discovery of the HIV variant, VB, discovered in the Netherlands.
He said there is no cause for concern. Karim said VB is able to cause more severe infection, but is treatable.
Comparing it to Covid, Karim explained that both HIV and the Coronavirus are RNA viruses.
He said HIV can convert its RNA into DNA and while doing so, makes mistakes, thus causing many mutations.
“We haven’t been able to identify individual variants or strains that are presenting and creating a different kind of clinical form and that’s what VB does. VB is able to cause more severe infection. Fortunately, it is readily amenable and treatable with all the standard antiretrovirals,” he said.
According to reports, those infected with the VB variant have an average viral load that is about four times higher than is usual for HIV infection, and their immune system declines twice as fast, placing them at risk of developing Aids more quickly.