The Netherlands uncovered a new HIV variant. And it's more contagious

It even progresses to AIDS faster.
Derya Ozdemir
The variant increases the number of HIV virus particles in infected people’s blood.Cavallini James/BSIP/Science Photo Library

The HIV-1 virus affects more than 37 million individuals globally and has resulted in 36 million fatalities to date, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) data. Scientists are scrambling to develop a vaccine; however, as the COVID-19 pandemic can attest, viruses mutate and these mutations can have a huge impact on the virus's transmissibility and risks, making things harder for the masses. And now, this is the case we're up against, as scientists have discovered a new and very virulent HIV strain in the Netherlands.

The new variant has been named the "VB variant", which stands for virulent subtype B, and people infected with it have demonstrated substantial differences before starting antiretroviral treatment when compared to people infected with other HIV variants, according to a study published in Science by researchers from the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute.

These differences include infected people having a viral load that is between 3.5 and 5.5 times higher. The rate of CD4 cell decline, which is the hallmark of HIV-induced immune system damage, was also twice as fast, putting those infected with the new variant at a substantially higher risk of developing AIDS. Moreover, these people also showed an elevated risk of spreading the virus to others.

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Thankfully, these patients had similar immune system recovery and survival to those infected with other HIV variants after commencing therapy. Still, it should be noted that the VB variant causes a faster decline in immune system strength, making it critical for people to be diagnosed early and begin treatment as soon as possible.

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"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," said senior author Professor Christophe Fraser from the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute and Nuffield Department of Medicine, in a press release. "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."

As the VB variety is distinguished by multiple mutations scattered throughout the genome, a single genetic etiology cannot be discovered right now, and the scientists will need to look into the mechanism that makes the VB variation more transmissible and harmful to the immune system, which could lead to the identification of potential targets for next-generation antiretroviral drugs.

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