Mutations in viruses can significantly change the infectiousness and the severity of a disease, as the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated.
Research from the University of Oxford has found a novel variant of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, which could be more infectious and more damaging to the immune system.
There are currently 109 people with the variant, most of whom live in the Netherlands.
- HIV has been discovered in a new strain in the Netherlands.
- It appears that the strain known as the VB variant causes more severe disease more quickly.
- A higher viral load is also seen in people with this strain.
New HIV variant causes illness twice as fast
In addition, people who contract the new variant may develop AIDS more quickly.
VB also has a viral load (the amount of virus detected in blood) 3.5 to 5.5 times higher than the current strain, indicating that it is also more infectious.
Damage to the immune system occurred twice as fast
Researchers say people with the variant showed double the decline in CD4+T cells (a sign of HIV-induced immune damage).
According to the study authors, when these individuals were diagnosed, they were vulnerable to developing AIDS within two to three years.
In people in their 30s with VB variant, critically low CD4 cell counts are expected to occur 9 months after diagnosis without treatment.
“The VB variant’s ability to facilitate transmission, damage the immune system, and interrupt treatment is a reminder of how clever the virus has become over time,” commented Anthony J. Santella, PhD, MCHES, professor of Health Administration and Policy at the University of New Haven.
Testing is an important tool against HIV
William A. Haseltine, Ph.D., chair, and president of ACCESS Health International was asked to explain what the variant means regarding testing recommendations for at-risk populations.
“I learned from my experience with AIDS that human behavior can be a lot more variable than I anticipated,” said Haseltine, author of several books including Variants: The Shape-Shifting Challenge of COVID-19.
A lot depends on your level of activity and how many partners you have, he said, adding that people with multiple partners should have HIV tests more frequently.
Former FDA associate commissioner, Peter Pitts, said VB is not a cause for concern.
This is a reason for refocusing our attention, he said. “We have been able to turn HIV/AIDS from a deadly disease into a chronic one.”.
“The fight against viruses is never-ending,” he continued. “Prophylactic care is important for public health.”
Testing and current treatments will still control disease
The amount of virus in a drop of blood is a surrogate for disease progression. Fichtenbaum told Healthline that the higher the amount, the more likely someone is to become ill.
“Many times this was caused by the type of HIV they contracted being more aggressive or virulent,” he said. “Get tested right away and begin treatment no matter what variant you have.”
There is no evidence that the current treatments won’t work, he said.
The Bottom Line
Researchers have discovered a new HIV variant called VB. It is more infectious and transmissible than current HIV strains.
VB is not a cause for alarm, and current treatments are effective against the virus.
Additionally, they suggest using a condom or barrier method and taking PrEP to prevent contracting or transmitting the virus.