Highly virulent HIV found in the Netherlands

Researchers say that a highly virulent variant of HIV has been silently circulating in the Netherlands, likely for decades.

The variant still responds to conventional treatments and its spread appears to have declined in recent years. 

But the discovery may offer a timely lesson about the nature of germs like HIV and how they can evolve over time to become more dangerous.

The UK researchers had been working on the BEEHIVE project, a study meant to figure out why some strains of HIV can cause more harm to a person’s immune system than others when left untreated — the end result of which leads to AIDS. To do this, they studied samples from people infected with HIV throughout Europe and Uganda, including those collected by earlier studies, hoping to find common mutations that could make the virus more damaging.

During this search, they found a group of 17 people, mostly from the Netherlands, who all carried the same variant of HIV-1, the most common type of HIV. This version of the virus — eventually christened as the “VB variant” — appeared to be exceptionally high in virulence. In practice, this meant that people with VB had far higher viral loads than usual and their levels of CD4 cells, the immune cells that HIV primarily infects and kills, dropped off very rapidly as well.

To confirm their suspicions, the team dug into another database of HIV patients living in the Netherlands. Sure enough, they found the variant in more people there as well. All told, they’ve identified VB in 109 people so far. And these individuals seemed to be no different from other residents in the country living with HIV in their age, sex, or other characteristics, further indicating that the virus itself is responsible for the increased virulence seen in their cases.  

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