As the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated, new mutations in viral genetic sequences can have significant impacts on the virus’s transmissibility and the damage it causes. For many years, there have been concerns that this could arise in the HIV-1 virus, which already affects 38 million people worldwide, and has caused 33 million deaths to date (www.unaids.org). This has now been confirmed with the discovery of a new, highly virulent HIV strain in the Netherlands, in an international collaborative study with key contributions from the Dutch HIV Monitoring Foundation and led by researchers from the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute. The results are published today in Science.
Individuals infected with the new “VB variant” (for virulent subtype B) 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.