The discovery of a new HIV strain calls for renewed vigilance amongst scientists to ensure that testing and treatment continues to work.
The strain, HIV-1, Group M viruses are responsible for the global pandemic, which can be traced back to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), according to Abbott Laboratories, which conducted the research alongside the University of Missouri in Kansas City.
This research marks the first time a new subtype of the group has been identified since guidelines for classifying new strains of HIV were established in 2000.
“Identifying new viruses such as this one is like searching for a needle in a haystack,” said Mary Rodgers, a principal scientist and head of the Global Viral Surveillance Programme, Diagnostics, at Abbott Laboratories.
She added: “By advancing our techniques and using next-generation sequencing technology, we are pulling the needle out with a magnet. This scientific discovery can help us ensure we are stopping new pandemics in their tracks.”
She said the strain can be a challenge for diagnostic tests, adding that the company tests more than 60 per cent of the world’s blood supply and that they have to look for new strains and track those in circulation.
“We can accurately detect it, no matter where it happens to be in the world. The primary concern is that HIV might evolve to the extent that testing wouldn’t work,” said Ms Rodgers.
She added: “We are sharing this strain with the scientific community so others can work on the strain and be hopeful that they can advance things like vaccines and treatments. We are not going to slow down. We can never become complacent, we need to be proactive and stay a step ahead of the virus.”
She said to prevent new infections, scientists have to understand how the virus has spread in the past. In 2000, the guidelines for identification of a new strain of HIV were outlined. One of the prerequisites to pinpoint a new strain was that three cases of the virus infection would have to be identified independently in different geographic locations.
The team of researchers said that two cases of this strain of the infection were detected in 1983 and 1990 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ms Rodgers explained that these two cases were unusual and “didn't match other strains”. Then the researchers confirmed the third case of the strain in Congo in 2001.
The findings, published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, revealed that scientists need to know what strains of the virus are circulating so that tests to detect the disease are accurate.
HIV has several different subtypes or strains, and like other viruses, it can change and mutate over time.
Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said current treatments for HIV are effective against this strain and others.
However, identifying a new strain provides a more complete map of how HIV evolves.
“There’s no reason to panic or worry. Not a lot of people are infected with this. This is an outlier,” he said.
Since the beginning of the global Aids pandemic, 75 million people have been infected with HIV and 37.9 million people today are living with the virus.
“In an increasingly connected world, we can no longer think of viruses being contained to one location,” said Carole McArthur, professor in the departments of oral and craniofacial sciences, University of Missouri.
She said the discovery reminds countries that to end the HIV pandemic, they must continue to outthink this continuously changing virus and use the latest advancements in technology and resources to monitor its evolution.
Today, next-generation sequencing technology allows researchers to build an entire genome at higher speeds and lower costs.
To utilise this technology, scientists have to develop and apply new techniques to help narrow in on the virus portion of the sample to fully sequence and complete the genome.