Newly published research from the Netherlands has revealed the existence of a more transmissible and damaging Variant of HIV, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) said on Monday.
The new strain, called the VB variant, damages the immune system, weakening people’s ability to fight everyday infections and diseases much faster than the previous HIV strains, scientists say. They are also vulnerable to developing AIDS two to three times faster after diagnosis, than if they were living with other strains of the virus.
Researchers also found that VB has a viral load (the amount of virus detected in blood) 3.5 to 5.5 times higher than the current strain, indicating that it could also be more infectious. The researchers revealed that the variant has been circulating in the Netherlands for years and remains receptive to treatment.
The study, led by researchers from the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute, is the first to report on the Subtype-B of the virus.
According to UNAIDS, the newly identified variant does not represent a major public health threat but underscores the urgency of speeding up the UN’s drive to end AIDS. But, the agency added in a press statement, that the discovery highlights the urgency to halt the pandemic and reach all with testing and treatment.
UNAIDS Programme Deputy Executive Director, Eamonn Murphy, noted that around 10 million people living with HIV are still not on antiretroviral therapy, fueling the continued spread of the virus and potential for further variants.
“We urgently need to deploy cutting-edge medical innovations in ways that reach the communities most in need. Whether it’s HIV treatment or COVID-19 vaccines, inequalities in access are perpetuating pandemics in ways that harm us all”, he said.
HIV remains the deadliest pandemic of our time, said UNAIDS. The long-running pandemic continues to take a life every minute and scientists have long worried about the evolution of new, more transmissible, variants of the virus.
Since first discovered in the early 80s, an estimated 79 million people have become infected with the virus, for which there is still no vaccine and no cure, while 36 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the start of the pandemic and 1.5 million people were newly infected in 2020.
Of the 38 million people living with the virus today, 28 million are on life-saving antiperspirant therapy, keeping them alive and well and preventing transmission.
But Peter Pitts, the president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, said he doesn’t think VB is a cause for alarm. “I think it’s a cause for renewed focus,” he said. “We’ve really been able to move HIV, AIDS, from a deadly disease to a chronic one.
Pitts added that he thinks one of the lessons from COVID-19 is that testing is an unappreciated weapon against viruses” and that it should remind us that by testing more regularly, we could develop new, more sophisticated, and less expensive tests.