A team of researchers from the University of Oxford has just identified a new “highly virulent” variant of HIV. Their discovery, relayed Thursday, February 3 in the magazine Science (source 1), may cause concern. Corn “there is no reason to be alarmed“, assured Chris Wymant, researcher in epidemiology at the University of Oxford and lead author of the study, to AFP.
The VB variant, more virulent and more contagious
Baptized “VB”, this new variant was discovered in the Netherlands at 17 HIV-positive patients and members of the BEEHIVEE project, which collects HIV samples in Europe and Uganda. It has different characteristics from other strains of HIV.
- According to the researchers, infected patients have a viral load 3.5 to 5.5 times higher than the others.
- Their T4 cells decline twice as fast, putting them at much earlier risk of developing AIDS.
- The VB variant also seems more transmissible than known strains of HIV.
To gauge the magnitude of the phenomenon, the team extended their research beyond the BEEHIVEE project and examined a cohort of 6,700 HIV-infected patients. Results? They identified 92 additional cases of the VB variant. In total 109 cases have therefore been identified in the Netherlands.
This is the first variant of HIV for which we see a great change in virulence, specifies Professor Christophe Fraser, author of the study, to our colleagues from Sciences et Avenir (source 2).
“There is no reason to be alarmed”
According to scientists, this variant has started to circulate in the Netherlands in the 1990s. It would then have spread in the 2000s. “It is possible that this variant evolved into a chronic infection in a patient responding poorly to treatment and who was unable to control the virus”, indicates Professor Christophe Fraser.
If there is no cause for concern, according to the researchers, it is because this variant responds to existing antiretroviral treatments and has been in decline since 2010. “The treatments currently available remain very effective against this variant, so there is no particular clinical recommendation for these patients”, confirms the author of the study.
And to alert: “On the other hand, this strain could cause a problem in other parts of the world where people at risk of catching HIV are less followed, because it is necessary to detect the virus quickly and start treatment before the development of AIDS. This delay being reduced with this variant, there would be less time to react. But as far as I know, this strain has not yet been identified outside of Europe.”
Further studies are needed to understand the origins of its increased virulence and transmissibility. According to the researchers, this discovery above all presents an opportunity to better understand how the HIV virus, which causes the disease AIDS, attacks cells.