Scientists find highly virulent HIV variant circulating in Netherlands

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Scientists have found a new HIV variant with higher virulence and more damaging health impact in the Netherlands.

A team led by the University of Oxford identified about 109 individuals from the Netherlands with the new “VB variant” (for virulent subtype B).

The results, published in the journal Science, revealed that individuals infected with the new VB variant showed significant differences before antiretroviral treatment compared with individuals infected with other HIV variants.

Individuals with the VB variant had a viral load (the level of the virus in the blood) between 3.5 and 5.5 times higher.

In addition, the rate of CD4 cell decline (the hallmark of immune system damage by HIV) occurred twice as fast in individuals with the VB variant, placing them at risk of developing AIDS much more rapidly.

Individuals with the VB variant also showed an increased risk of transmitting the virus to others.

Reassuringly, after starting treatment, individuals with the VB variant had similar immune system recovery and survival to individuals with other HIV variants.

However, the researchers stress that because the VB variant causes a more rapid decline in immune system strength, this makes it critical that individuals are diagnosed early and start treatment as soon as possible.

The VB variant is characterised by many mutations spread throughout the genome, meaning that a single genetic cause cannot be identified at this stage.

“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,” said lead author Dr Chris Wymant, from Oxford’s Big Data Institute and Nuffield Department of Medicine.

The study emphasises 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,” added Professor Christophe Fraser from the varsity.

The VB variant was first identified in 17 HIV positive individuals from the BEEHIVE project, an ongoing study which collects samples from across Europe and Uganda.

Since 15 of these people came from the Netherlands, the researchers then analysed data from a cohort of over 6,700 HIV positive individuals in the Netherlands. This identified an additional 92 individuals with the variant, from all regions of the Netherlands, bringing the total to 109.

By analysing the patterns of genetic variation among the samples, the team estimated that the VB variant first arose during the late 1980s and 1990s in the Netherlands. It spread more quickly than other HIV variants during the 2000s, but its spread has been declining since around 2010.

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