Researchers have identified a new subgroup of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) for the first time in almost two decades. The discovery comes from samples collected during the last 30 years in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
As reported in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, the new strain is called HIV-1 Group M subtype L. Its existence has been suspected for a long time given studies of two samples, one collected in 1983 and one collected in 1990. To confirm the existence of a new strain, it's necessary to have three independent samples. A sample collected in 2001 showed some promising similarities, but it was difficult to fully sequence.
Technological improvements over the last few years have provided researchers with the ability to get entire genomes faster and from smaller samples. This finally allowed this team, mostly from health care company Abbott Laboratories, a way to test if the 2001 sample was truly evidence of a new strain. And it was.
"Identifying new viruses such as this one is like searching for a needle in a haystack," co-author Dr Mary Rodgers, head of Abbott’s Global Viral Surveillance Program, said in a statement. "By advancing our techniques and using next-generation sequencing technology, we are pulling the needle out with a magnet. We're making this new strain accessible to the research community to evaluate its impact to diagnostic testing, treatments and potential vaccines."
Discovering a new strain of a virus is crucial in our fight against these microbes. New strains have the chance to evade detection in tests, to be resistant to current treatments, and represent another hurdle in the arduous road towards a vaccine.
"This discovery reminds us that to end the HIV pandemic, we must continue to outthink this continuously changing virus and use the latest advancements in technology and resources to monitor its evolution," co-author Professor Carole McArthur, from the University of Missouri – Kansas City, added.
It is estimated that 75 million people have contracted HIV worldwide and 32 million people have died. Given access to the most recent treatments, people with HIV can live as long as those without the virus. People on effective antiretroviral therapy (ART) who reach an undetected viral load cannot sexually transmit the virus to an HIV-negative partner. It is also important to know that HIV can be prevented through drugs such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).
While both ART and PrEP have been invaluable in the fight against the virus, it is important to remember that the challenges to fight the pandemic are not just medical but also social. Hurdles such as social stigma, inadequate access to health systems, cost of treatments, poverty, racism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and criminalization of people with HIV continue to stop people from receiving the care they deserve.
[H/T: Scientific American]