New highly virulent strain of HIV identified in Netherlands

The researchers at Oxford University announced on Thursday the discovery of a highly virulent strain of (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) HIV that has been identified in the Netherlands.

Its origin has been traced as far back as to the 1990s using genetic sequence analysis.

The researchers reported in the journal “Science,” that patients infected with the “VB variant” had 3.5 to 5.5 times higher viral levels in their blood than those infected with alternative variants, along with a faster deterioration of their 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.

There’s no cause for alarm with this new viral variant, said Oxford epidemiologist Chris Wymant, the lead author on the paper.

The variant emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the Netherlands, according to the researchers, but began to decline around 2010.

Since modern interventions still seem to work on the variant, the research team believes that widespread HIV treatment in the Netherlands did not contribute to the virus’s evolution, and that early detection and treatment are paramount.

“Our findings emphasize 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,” said co-author Christophe Fraser, also an Oxford researcher, in a press release announcing the findings.

The work also supports the theory that viruses can evolve to become more virulent, a widely-hypothesized idea for which few real-world examples have been found.

The discovery of the HIV variant should therefore “be a warning that we should never be overconfident about saying viruses will just evolve to become milder,” said Wymant to AFP.

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.

Finding a new variant is normal, but finding a new variant with unusual properties is not especially one with increased virulence, Wyman explained.

The research team first identified the VB variant in 17 HIV positive individuals by the broad data set from the BEEHIVE project, a data collection and analysis initiative in Europe and Uganda.

92 other HIV-positive individuals were identified by analyzing data from 6,700 Dutch HIV-positive individuals since 15 of the 17 individuals lived in the Netherlands.

VB variant was found in 1992 in a patient who had an early version of the variant, and the most recently was in 2014.

Other researchers have since found other individuals with the variant diagnosed after 2014.

As 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.

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