UK Researchers Discover Previously Unknown ‘Highly Virulent’ HIV Variant Circulating in Netherlands since 1990s
Though the variant poses low risk thanks to modern HIV treatments, the scientists stress the importance of access to early clinical laboratory testing for at-risk individuals
With the global healthcare industry hyper focused on arrival of the next SARS-CoV-2 variant, pathologists and clinical laboratories may be relieved to learn that—though researchers in the Netherlands discovered a previously unknown “highly virulent” strain of HIV—the lead scientist of the study says there’s “no cause for alarm.”
In a news release, researchers at the University of Oxford Big Data Institute said the HIV variant got started in the Netherlands in the 1990s, spread quickly into the 2000s, and that prior to treatment, people with the new virulent subtype B (VB variant) had exceptionally high viral loads compared to people with other HIV variants.
Fortunately, the scientist also found that around 2010, thanks to antiretroviral drug therapy, the severe variant began to decline.
The scientists published their findings in the peer-reviewed journal Science, titled, “A Highly Virulent Variant of HIV-1 Circulating in the Netherlands.”
‘Nobody Should Be Alarmed’
In an interview with NPR, Chris Wymant, PhD, the study’s lead author, said, “People with this variant have a viral load that is three to four times higher than usual for those with HIV. This characteristic means the virus progresses into serious illness twice as fast, and also makes it more contagious.”
Fortunately, he added, “Existing medications work very well to treat even very virulent variants like this one, cutting down on transmission and reducing the chance of developing severe illness.
“Nobody should be alarmed,” he continued. “It responds exactly as well to treatment as HIV normally does. There’s no need to develop special treatments for this variant.”
Wymant is senior researcher in statistical genetics and pathogen dynamics at the Big Data Institute (BDI).
Genetic Sequences of the Virulent Virus
About 680,000 people worldwide died from AIDS in 2020, down from 1.3 million in 2010, according to US Health and Human Services HIV data.
In their published study, the BDI researchers reported that their analysis of genetic sequences of the VB variant suggested it “arose in the 1990s from de novo (of new) mutation, not recombination, with increased transmissibility and an unfamiliar molecular mechanism of virulence.
“By the time, they were diagnosed, these individuals were vulnerable to developing AIDS within two to three years. The virus lineage, which has apparently arisen de novo since around the millennium, shows extensive change across the genome affecting almost 300 amino acids, which makes it hard to discern the mechanism for elevated virulence,” the researchers noted.
The researchers analyzed a data set from the project BEEHIVE (Bridging the Epidemiology and Evolution of HIV in Europe and Uganda). They found 15 of 17 people positive for the VB variant residing in the Netherlands. That prompted them to focus on a cohort of more than 6,700 Dutch HIV positive people in the ATHENA (AIDS Therapy Evaluation in the Netherlands) cohort database, where they found 92 more individuals with the VB variant, bringing the total to 109.
According to a Medscape report on the study’s findings, people with the VB variant showed the following characteristics:
- Double the rate of CD4-positive T-cell declines (indicator of immune system damage by HIV), compared to others with subtype-B strains.
- Increased risk of infecting others with the virus based on transmissibility associated with variant branching.
Wymant says access to clinical laboratory testing is key to curtailing the number of people who contract the VB variant. “Getting people tested as soon as possible, getting them onto treatment as soon as possible, has helped reduce the numbers of this variant even though we didn’t know that it existed,” he told NPR.
The University of Oxford Big Data Institute study is another example of how constantly improving genome sequencing technology allows scientists to dig deeper into genetic material for insights that can advance the understanding of many diseases and health conditions.
—Donna Marie Pocius