Scientists find new strain of HIV for the first time since 2000 – and they say the discovery is a step toward ending the pandemic by including it in testing, treatment and potential vaccines
- Scientists at Abbott Labs have confirmed that a strain of HIV that infected three people in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a new variety of the virus
- This is the first time since 2000 that a new strain has been identified
- It belongs to the same family of the viruses that triggered the HIV pandemic that began in 1981 and has killed 32 million people
- Scientists say the discovery suggests the virus is constantly evolving and finding a new strain is key to creating an effective vaccine in the future
- But it shares enough similarities to the other strains in its family to be diagnosed and treated in the same way
Scientists have identified a new strain of HIV – the first to be discovered since 2000.
The newly-discovered strain belongs to the same sub-family of the virus responsible for the pandemic that began in 1981 in Sub-Saharan Africa, spread around the globe and has killed 32 million people.
It belongs to Group M of the virus and was identified in three people in the Democratic Republic of Congo by scientists at Abbott Labs, which makes HIV diagnostic tests.
The family of viruses is still the one that most commonly infects humans.
Although it may represent an evolution of the virus, the new HIV strain contains the necessary similarities to previously discovered Group M ones to still be diagnosed and treated using existing methods.
But the discovery of this strain – and all others of HIV – could be a step forward in their understanding of how the virus evolves, how to diagnose and treat it and to the development of a potential vaccine to end the pandemic for good.
A new strain of HIV (pictured) has been discovered – the first since 2000 – by scientists at Abbott Laboratories, suggesting the virus may have evolved
‘This discovery is just the tip of the iceberg,’ said Dr Mary Rodgers, a principal scientist at Abbott and a study co-author.
‘Abbott is making this new strain available to the research community globally to evaluate its impact to diagnostic testing, treatments and potential vaccines.’
This is the first time a new subtype of Group M HIV has been identified since classification guidelines for parsing out the various strains were established at the turn of the century.
Researchers say the new discovery helps them to stay one step ahead of a mutating virus and avoid new pandemics.
They’ve actually been aware of the novel strain for some time, but DNA sequencing technology was insufficient to confirm it as new, until now.
Before an unusual virus can be determined a new subtype, three cases of it must be discovered independently.
The first two samples of the new HIV-1 Group M, subtype L were discovered in DRC in the 1980s and the 1990s.
The third, collected in 2001, was difficult to sequence at the time because of the amount of virus in the sample and the existing technology.
Global healthcare company Abbott made the discovery, which is published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes (JAIDS).
‘In an increasingly connected world, we can no longer think of viruses being contained to one location,’ Carole McArthur, professor in the departments of oral and craniofacial sciences, University of Missouri, Kansas City, and one of the study authors, said.
‘This discovery reminds us that to end the HIV pandemic, we must continue to out-think this continuously changing virus and use the latest advancements in technology and resources to monitor its evolution.’
Latest genome sequencing technology allows researchers to build an entire genome at higher speeds and lower costs.
In order to make the most of this technology, Abbott scientists developed and applied new techniques to help narrow in on the virus portion of the sample to fully sequence and complete the genome.
The new Group M strain will not change the way HIV is diagnosed or treated, and simply means that people are tested for the new strain as well.
Existing diagnostic tests and anti-retroviral drugs, which suppress the growth of HIV, are designed to target the parts of the virus that are common to all groups.
Dr Michael Brady, medical director at HIV charity Terrence Higgins Trust said: ‘Scientific progress in our understanding of HIV continues to move at a fast pace.
‘It’s important to stress that there are many different strains of HIV, but our ability to detect and treat the virus remains the same.
‘Thanks to medical advances, HIV is now a long-term manageable condition and people on effective treatment can’t pass the virus on.’
An estimated 47 percent of people who are living with HIV are considered ‘virally suppressed, meaning that treatment has lowered the load of the virus in their blood sufficiently so that it cannot be transmitted to other people.
‘We now have the tools to end new HIV transmissions once and for all, and breaking down barriers to testing will help us achieve that goal.’
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