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Highly Virulent HIV Variant Discovered in the Netherlands

  • Published
    5th Feb, 2022
Context

“VB variant”, a new, highly-virulent form of the HIV-1 virus has been discovered in the Netherlands by an international collaboration led by researchers at the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute.

About

About the variant

  • The variant likely arose in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the Netherlands, but began to decline around 2010.
    • Its origin has been traced as far back as to the 1990s using genetic sequence analysis.
  • This is the main group of HIV-1 that triggered the HIV pandemic worldwide in 1981.
  • The strain’s high virulence is calculated based on viral load and CD4 counts — “the concentration of CD4+ T cells in peripheral blood, which tracks immune system damage by the virus”.
    • CD4 cells, also known as T cells, are white blood cells that fight infection and play an important role in your immune system.
    • A CD4 count is used to check the health of the immune system in people infected with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus).
    • HIV attacks and destroys CD4 cells.

What is HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)?

  • HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system.
    • If HIV is not treated, it can lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).
  • Transmission: HIV can be transmitted via the exchange of a variety of body fluids from infected people, such as blood, breast milk, semen and vaginal secretions. 
  • Source: HIV infection in humans came from a type of chimpanzee in Central Africa.
    • The chimpanzee version of the virus (called simian immunodeficiency virus, or SIV) was probably passed to humans when humans hunted these chimpanzees for meat and came in contact with their infected blood.

Symptoms

  • Treatment: There is currently no effective cure. Once people get HIV, they have it for life.

Stages of HIV

  • Stage 1: Acute HIV Infection- People have a large amount of HIV in their blood. They are very contagious.
  • Stage 2: Chronic HIV Infection- This stage is also called asymptomatic HIV infection or clinical latency.
  • Stage 3: Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS)- The most severe phase of HIV infection.

Key-highlights of the study

  • Higher level of virus in blood: The analysis showed that patients infected with the “VB variant” had 3.5 to 5.5 times higher levels of the virus in their blood than those infected with other variants.
  • Fading immune system: It also found a more rapidly fading immune system.
    • However, the study also found that after starting treatment, individuals with the VB variant had similar immune system recovery and survival to individuals with other HIV variants.
  • In total, the team found 109 people infected with the VB variant, with only four living outside the Netherlands, but still in western Europe.
  • The HIV virus is constantly evolving, so much so that each person infected has a slightly different version. The VB variant, however, was found to have over 500 mutations.
  • The research team first identified the VB variant in 17 HIV positive individuals by parsing a broad data set from the BEEHIVE project, a data collection and analysis initiative in Europe and Uganda.

BEEHIVE project

The BEEHIVE project is an ongoing study funded by the European Research Council that looks at what causes a more severe impact on a person infected with HIV.

  • The project identified 17 individuals whose viral loads were ‘highly elevated’.
    • Fifteen of these were from the Netherlands and one each from Belgium and Switzerland.

Is it alarming?

  • Because of the effectiveness of modern treatments, is “no cause for alarm.”
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