For the first time in nearly two decades, a new strain of HIV has been identified, according to scientists at U.S. drugmaker Abbott Laboratories.
Mary Rodgers, a principal scientist at Abbott whose team published their findings on Wednesday in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, said there was no reason for the public to be excessively concerned about the newly discovered HIV subtype, which they believe to be extremely rare.
But the scientists said the discovery of the new strain — called HIV-1 Group M, subtype L — should serve as a reminder of how diverse and continually evolving HIV viruses are, and how necessary it is for medical and research communities to remain vigilant.
“We can never become complacent, we need to be proactive and we’re working to stay a step ahead of the virus,” Rodgers told the Chicago Tribune.
“Identifying new viruses such as this one is like searching for a needle in a haystack,” Rodgers added in a statement. “This scientific discovery can help us ensure we are stopping new pandemics in their tracks.”
The identification of a new HIV subtype “tells us that the HIV epidemic is still ongoing and still evolving,” immunology expert Jonah Sacha, who was not involved in the Abbott study, told Scientific American.
“The calling card of HIV is its diversity. That’s what’s defeated all of our attempts to create a vaccine,” said Sacha, a professor at the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute at Oregon Health & Science University. “People think it’s not a problem anymore, and we’ve got it under control. But, really, we don’t.”
The Abbott researchers said the new subtype was first collected in the 1980s in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A second sample was later discovered in the DRC in the 1990s.
Scientists needed at least one more sample to confirm the discovery, but a promising sample collected in 2001 had contained too little of the virus to be properly analyzed with the technology of the time.
Rodgers explained how scientists were finally able to crack this decades-old mystery using advanced DNA sequencing technology.
“If you think about the amount of material in a blood sample, it’s like a haystack of information that you could sequence. And the HIV in that sample is just a tiny part of the sample,” Rodgers told the Chicago Tribune. “So we’ve literally created technology that acts like a magnet to pull out that needle in the haystack and sequence just the virus.”
It remains unknown how subtype L ― the first new HIV strain identified since guidelines for classifying subtypes of the virus were established in 2000 ― affects the human body.
It belongs to the most common HIV group ― HIV-1 Group M ―which has been responsible for the majority of infections in the HIV epidemic. To date, more than 75 million people have been infected with HIV. Researchers suspect the new subtype will behave in a similar way to other subtypes in Group M, and will also respond to the same treatments.
Still, scientists said the identification of any new HIV subtype is important as it ensures that diagnostic tests used to detect the disease are up to date.
As Sacha noted, it could be catastrophic if a radically different strain of the virus was able to escape detection.
“Viruses break through all the time, and we’re not ready to deal with them ― just like what happened with the original HIV,” Sacha told Scientific American.
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