A new highly-infectious and damaging strain of HIV, resulting from a mutation in the virus, has been discovered in the Netherlands.
Scientists working on the BEEHIVE project, a study of HIV genomics and virulence across Europe and Uganda, published their findings in the journal Science on Thursday (3 February).
According to UNAIDS, 38 million people around the world are currently living with the most prominent strain of the virus, HIV-1, and it has caused, to date, around 33 million deaths. HIV-2 is the other most prominent type of HIV, and is most commonly seen in West Africa.
The newly discovered mutation, a subtype of HIV-1, has been named “virulent subtype B” or the “VB variant”, and it showed “significant differences before antiretroviral treatment compared with individuals infected with other HIV variants”.
Measuring the viral load, or level of virus in the blood, of those with the VB variant, scientists found that it was between 3.5 and 5.5 times higher than those with other variants of HIV.
The new strain also damaged the immune system twice as fast, “placing them at risk of developing AIDS much more rapidly”, and those with the VB variant were at a higher risk of transmitting the virus to others.
Thankfully, scientists found that after starting treatment, “individuals with the VB variant had similar immune system recovery and survival to individuals with other HIV variants”.
But they emphasised the need to get tested often for early diagnosis, because of the rapid progression of the variant.
Lead study author Dr Chris Wymant, from the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute and Nuffield Department of Medicine, said: “Before this study, the genetics of the HIV virus were known to be relevant for virulence, implying that the evolution of a new variant could change its impact on health.
“Discovery of the VB variant demonstrated this, providing a rare example of the risk posed by viral virulence evolution.”
Senior author professor Christophe Fraser, of the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute and Nuffield Department of Medicine, added: “Our findings emphasise 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.
“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.”
In the UK, the week beginning 7 February is designated National HIV Testing Week, with people across the country encouraged to get tested.
According to the Terrence Higgins Trust, one in 20 people with HIV are unaware they have it, which increases the risk of damage to the immune system, and of passing it on to sexual partners.