Deltacron Photograph:( WION Web Team )
The researchers believe the variant emerged in the Netherlands in the late 1980s and early 1990s but started declining around 2010
Researchers at Oxford University announced Thursday the discovery of a highly virulent strain of HIV that has been lurking in the Netherlands for decades but is not a danger because of the effectiveness of modern treatments.
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.
It was found, however, that when individuals with the VB variant began treatment, they had similar immune system recovery and survival to individuals with other HIV variants.
According to Oxford epidemiologist Chris Wymant, the lead author of the paper, there is no reason for alarm.
The researchers believe the variant emerged in the Netherlands in the late 1980s and early 1990s but started declining around 2010.
The research team believes that since modern treatments are still effective against the variant, widespread HIV treatment in the Netherlands could not have led to the evolution of the virus, so early detection and treatment are essential.
"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.
Moreover, this study supports the theory that viruses can evolve to become virulent, which is a widely-hypothesized idea for which there are few real-world examples.
Another recent example is the Delta variant of the Novel Coronavirus.
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 while speaking to AFP.
A total of 109 people were found to be infected with the VB variant, but only four were living outside of the Netherlands.
The HIV virus is constantly evolving, to such an extent that each person has a slightly different strain. VB variant, however, has 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.
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A broad data set from the BEEHIVE project, a data collection and analysis initiative in Europe and Uganda, was parsed by the researchers to identify the VB variant in 17 HIV positive individuals.
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 was first observed in 1992 in a patient with an early form of the gene variant and was found most recently in 2014.
(With inputs from agencies)