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Scientists Discover HIV Variant: More Contagious, More Severe

  • Researchers have identified a variant of HIV that progresses to AIDS twice as quickly as past versions.
  • People infected with the VB variant also have higher viral loads, making them more likely to transmit to others.
  • Existing antiretroviral treatments for HIV still work against the newfound variant.

A highly aggressive and contagious variant of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) has been silently spreading in the Netherlands for decades, and researchers have finally identified it.

Like the coronavirus, the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) has mutated into a slew of variants — some more dangerous than others. The newfound variant, called VB, appears to progress about twice as quickly as closely related strains.

Individuals infected with the VB variant are likely to develop AIDS within two to three years after diagnosis if they don’t receive treatment, rather than the typical six- to seven-year progression, researchers wrote in the journal Science.

This striking example of viral evolution has implications for the COVID-19 pandemic, wrote Joel Wertheim, associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, in a perspective published alongside the findings on Thursday.

“We should never underestimate the potential for viral evolution,” Wertheim, who was not involved in the study, told NPR. “Let this study stand in stark contrast to the claim that all viruses will inevitably evolve to be benign.”

Doubly aggressive and extra contagious

All variants of HIV attack the immune system in a similar fashion. The virus latches onto CD4 cells (also known as T cells), a type of white blood cell that leads the charge against infection, and causes them to swell and burst.

Researchers found that the VB variant explodes those cells twice as quickly, leading to a swifter decline in immune function. Once the CD4 count dips below a certain level, that person is considered immunocompromised with AIDS and is therefore prone to life-threatening infections.

While working on the BEEHIVE project — an initiative to understand how HIV has and continues to evolve — researchers noticed that 17 individuals had especially high viral loads early in infection.  Fifteen of those individuals were from the Netherlands, and the other two were from Switzerland and Belgium.

After studying another 92 people infected with the VB variant, researchers determined that the viral load tends to be three or four times higher than typical HIV infections. More virus in the body means the host is more contagious to others, lead author Chris Wymant told NPR. 

Fortunately, the standard antiretroviral drugs used to treat HIV still work to stop the transmission and progression of the VB variant, he said. If taken consistently, the medication can lower the viral load to an undetectable level, so many people with HIV can live normal and healthy lives.

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