New HIV Variant Discovered: May be More Infectious and Severe

 By Healthline Written by George Citroner on February 4, 2022 — Fact checked by Dana K. Cassell

  • A new strain of HIV has been discovered in the Netherlands.
  • The strain dubbed the VB variant appears to lead to more severe disease more quickly. 
  • People with this strain also tended to have a higher viral load.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that mutations in a virus can significantly change a pathogen’s infectiousness and severity of disease.

Now, new research from the University of Oxford finds a new variant of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, that is potentially more infectious and could more seriously affect the immune system.

So far, 109 people, most of whom live in the Netherlands, have the variant.

New HIV variant causes illness twice as fast

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.

It also means that people who contract the new variant may develop AIDS faster.

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 CD4+T cell decline (a sign of immune damage by HIV) was twice as fast in people with the variant, researchers say.

“By the time they were diagnosed, these individuals were vulnerable to developing AIDS within 2 to 3 years,” study authors wrote.

Absent treatment, critically low CD4 cell counts “with long-term clinical consequences” is expected to happen 9 months after diagnosis on average for people in their 30s with VB variant, they said.

“The VB variant’s ability to facilitate transmission, damage the immune system, and interrupt treatment is a reminder how smart the virus is evolving over time,” said Anthony J. Santella, DrPH, MCHES, professor of Health Administration and Policy at the University of New Haven.

Testing an important tool against HIV

Asked what the variant means regarding testing recommendations for at-risk populations, William A. Haseltine, PhD, Chair, and President of the global health think tank ACCESS Health International, said it depends on people’s behavior.

“I learned early in the course of AIDS [that] human behavior is a lot more variable than I expected,” said Haseltine, who has authored numerous books, including Variants: The Shape-Shifting Challenge of COVID-19.

It depends on your activity, and how many different partners you have, he said, adding that people who have multiple partners should undergo HIV testing more often. 

Peter Pitts, former FDA associate commissioner and 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.

“The battle against viruses is a never-ending one,” he continued. “I think that from a public health perspective, we should focus on prophylactic care.” 

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.

Testing and current treatments will still control disease

Dr. Carl Fichtenbaum, professor of clinical medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, told Healthline that it has been known for decades that some individuals get sicker quicker than others.

“The amount of virus measured in a drop of blood is a surrogate of disease progression. The higher the amount, the more likely someone will progress and become ill,” Fichtenbaum told Healthline.

“We suspect many times this is because the type of HIV they got was more aggressive or virulent,” he said. “Our practice is the same regardless of variant — get tested right away and start treatment.”

He noted that there is “no evidence” that the current treatments won’t work.

Fichtenbaum explained that reducing the risk of infection begins with sex with a condom or other barrier method.

“Know your status of HIV and those you have sex with by getting tested first; use condoms for sex; don’t share any needles or paraphernalia for injection drug use,” he said. “Those at higher risk can use PrEP or Pre-exposure prophylaxis.”

Fichtenbaum said FDA-approved treatments for people living with HIV include a tenofovir/emtricitabine combination tablet daily and cabotegravir injections every 2 months. 

“Those individuals that have HIV can take their medications and be ‘undetectable’ on their viral load, which eliminates the chance of HIV transmission,” he said. “Hence the slogan U=U; undetectable equals untransmutable.”

The bottom line

Researchers have discovered a new variant of HIV called VB. This variant is more infectious and transmissible than current HIV strains.

Experts say VB is no cause for alarm, and current treatments are still effective against the virus. They also say that the best way to avoid contracting or transmitting the virus includes sex with a condom or other barrier method and PrEP medication.

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