Scientists discover ‘highly virulent’ strain of HIV in Netherlands

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Scientists discover 'highly virulent' strain of HIV in Netherlands

Researchers have discovered a highly virulent and more rapidly progressing strain of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS — but insist it is “no cause for alarm” because of modern treatments against the illness.

The analysis showed that patients infected with the so-called “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 more rapidly fading immune system, according to Agence France-Presse.

But the study, published Thursday in the journal Science, also found that after starting treatment, people with the new variant had similar immune system recovery and survival to those with other HIV variants.

“There’s no cause for alarm with this new viral variant,” Oxford epidemiologist Chris Wymant, the lead author on the paper, told AFP about the virulent strain, which has been lurking in the Netherlands for decades.

“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,” Oxford co-author Christophe Fraser said in a statement.

HIV stain
Patients infected with the “VB variant” had higher levels of the virus in their blood than those infected with other variants, according to the study.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

The finding also supports the theory that viruses can evolve to become more virulent, a widely hypothesized theory for which other examples have been found — including the Delta variant of COVID-19.

The discovery of the VB variant should “be a warning that we should never be overconfident about saying viruses will just evolve to become milder,” Wymant told the news outlet.

“Finding a new variant is normal, but finding a new variant with unusual properties is not — especially one with increased virulence,” he said.

In total, the researchers found 109 people infected with the VB variant, with only four living outside the Netherlands, but still in Western Europe.

The HIV virus is constantly evolving, so much so that each person infected has a slightly different version — but the VB variant was found to have more than 500 mutations, according to AFP.

The team first identified the variant in 17 HIV-positive people by analyzing a broad data set from the BEEHIVE project, a data collection and analysis initiative in Europe and Uganda.

Because 15 of the 17 were from the Netherlands, they also investigated data from 6,700 HIV-positive Dutch people, identifying 92 others, according to the news outlet.

The earliest appearance of the variant was detected in someone diagnosed in 1992 who had an early version of the variant, and the most recent was from 2014.

According to a report published Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022 in the journal Science, researchers have found a previously unrecognized variant of HIV that's more virulent than usual and quietly circulated in the Netherlands for the past few decades.
People who had treatment for the strain had similar outcomes to people who had other variants of HIV, the study found.
NIAID via AP

In addition to the effect on the immune system, the researchers found VB to be more highly transmissible after comparing the different versions of the variant drawn from infected patients.

“Because the VB variant causes a more rapid decline in immune system strength, this makes it critical that individuals are diagnosed early and start treatment as soon as possible,” they said in a statement.

“This limits the amount of time HIV can damage an individual’s immune system and jeopardize their health,” Fraser said.

 

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