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Fact Check: No, Netherlands Virulent HIV Variant Is Not Linked To COVID Vaccines

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Dr. Katie Spalding

Katie has a PhD in maths, specializing in the intersection of dynamical systems and number theory.

Freelance Writer

clockFeb 16 2022, 14:54 UTC
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As you may already be aware, HIV and COVID are different things. Image: VikiVector/Shutterstock, IFLScience

As a general rule of life, try not to get your cutting-edge medical research news from memes posted by some guy called @tinfoil_bob_420. It will probably end badly.

For instance, you might end up thinking that the recent discovery of a new and more virulent strain of HIV in the Netherlands was connected in some way to the country’s high COVID vaccination rates. That’s the latest installment in a long, long, long list of COVID misinformation, and it’s been cropping up all over social media.

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“Congratulations, you VAIDS’ed yourself,” reads one Facebook meme – the punchline being an apparently humorous portmanteau of “vaccine” and “AIDS”.

“I won’t need an HIV test, because I haven't had a COVID jab,” writes one Twitter user, possibly as some kind of warning against sleeping with him.

And: “What will you do when it is found that HIV is in the vaccine via Spike protein?” asks another, referencing a vaccine candidate that was only available in Australia, didn’t run any risk of infecting people with HIV, and was scrapped over a year ago.

“New HIV strain found in the Netherlands: Highly infectious variant makes people ill twice as quick,” they continue. “There are no coincidences!”

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Here’s the thing: not only do coincidences happen all the time, but this barely even counts as one. As Dr Chris Wymant, lead author of the paper in which the new “VB” variant of HIV was identified, explained to IFLScience the new strain has likely been around for decades already. “The evolution that resulted in the VB variant took place during the late 1980s and 1990s in the Netherlands. It spread more quickly than other HIV variants during the 2000s, but its spread has been declining since around 2010,” he said.

Senior author of the study, Professor Christophe Fraser, told Reuters this makes the timing of the two events less “suspicious” and more “literally proof of no connection.”

“There is absolutely no basis to the claim of an association between COVID, or COVID vaccination, and the severity of infection in those infected with the VB variant of HIV,” Fraser said. “Such an association is strictly impossible due to the timing of when the data were collected and analyses, and when the patients were infected.”

Most of the cases analyzed in the study were diagnosed more than a decade ago, Fraser pointed out, with the study itself noting that “[m]ost of the evolution that gave rise to the VB variant occurred before 1992, before effective combination treatment was available.” As you can imagine, that makes the probability that it was caused by a COVID vaccine administered 30 years later pretty low.

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Nevertheless, this isn’t the only rumor floating around out there that tries to link the COVID vaccines with HIV or AIDS. As we’ve already seen, some cite a 2020 Australian vaccine candidate that contained tiny fragments of a protein found in the HIV virus as proof that “the vaccine causes HIV.” It doesn’t: the protein was there to stabilize COVID’s signature spike protein, but it didn’t and couldn’t cause HIV.

Besides, that vaccine never made it to market – when it was found to cause false positives in HIV tests, it was shelved. Australia already had access to other vaccines by that point, and the government decided one new candidate wasn’t worth the impact on the country’s established HIV infrastructure.

“There is no possibility the vaccine causes infection, and routine follow up tests confirmed there is no HIV virus present,” confirmed a statement from the University of Queensland at the time. “It is generally agreed that significant changes would need to be made to well-established HIV testing procedures in the healthcare setting to accommodate rollout of this vaccine. Therefore … vaccine development will not proceed.”

Another “theory” has the late virologist Dr Luc Montagnier, who won the Nobel Prize in 2008 for discovering HIV, claiming that COVID boosters can give you either HIV or AIDS.

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“For those of you that have taken the third dose, go and take a test for AIDS,” various social media accounts quote him as saying. “The results may surprise you. Then sue your government.”

There’s no evidence Montagnier ever said this – and there’s no way it’s true even if he had: there is “no plausible mechanism in which COVID-19 vaccines (or indeed, any vaccines) can cause HIV or AIDS,” Dr Bnar Talabani told Reuters.

“There is no evidence to support this claim,” Talabani added. “[It]’s a very good example of how misinformation is constructed to play on fear and dissuade people from having vaccines that have been proven safe in almost 10 billion doses given worldwide, to date.”

 


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