Scientists have identified a new strain of HIV – the first to be discovered since 2000.
It the first time a new subtype of Group M HIV has been identified since classification guidelines were established at the turn of the century.
Group M viruses are responsible for the global pandemic, which can be traced back to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Researchers say the discovery helps them to stay one step ahead of a mutating virus and avoid new pandemics.
Before an unusual virus can be determined a new subtype, three cases of it must be discovered independently.
The first two samples of the new HIV-1 Group M, subtype L were discovered in DRC in the 1983 and 1990.
The third, collected in 2001, was difficult to sequence at the time because of the amount of virus in the sample and the existing technology.
Global healthcare company Abbott made the discovery, which is published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes (JAIDS).
Carole McArthur, professor in the departments of oral and craniofacial sciences, University of Missouri, Kansas City, and one of the study authors, said: “In an increasingly connected world, we can no longer think of viruses being contained to one location.
“This discovery reminds us that to end the HIV pandemic, we must continue to out-think this continuously changing virus and use the latest advancements in technology and resources to monitor its evolution.”
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Latest genome sequencing technology allows researchers to build an entire genome at higher speeds and lower costs.
To make the most of this technology, Abbott scientists developed and applied new techniques to help narrow in on the virus portion of the sample to fully sequence and complete the genome.
The new Group M strain will not change the way HIV is diagnosed or treated, and simply means that people are tested for the new strain as well.
Existing diagnostic tests and antiretroviral drugs, which suppress the growth of HIV, are designed to target the parts of the virus that are common to all groups.
Who really discovered HIV?
In May 1983, two papers appeared in the same issue of Science claiming the same breakthrough: the identification of a virus apparently linked to AIDS. While neither the US nor the French teams were certain of the link, their claims were seized on in the search for a treatment.
Further research by the US team confirmed the AIDS connection, and the virus was named the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). But the coincidence of two teams making the same claim sparked a bitter row between the team leaders: Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute, Maryland, and Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute, Paris.
Initially the dispute focused on who should benefit from royalties for a blood test for HIV. In 1987, the US and French governments settled that dispute by declaring both teams co-discoverers. But then Gallo’s team were accused of having wrongfully acquired the virus from the Paris team – a charge later rejected by investigators.
The arguments continued until 2002, when the rivals publicly agreed that Montagnier’s team had discovered HIV, but its role in AIDS was first shown by Gallo. Even so, controversy flared once more in 2008 when the Nobel prize was awarded for the HIV breakthrough – and Gallo’s contribution was overlooked.
Dr Michael Brady, medical director at HIV charity Terrence Higgins Trust said: “Scientific progress in our understanding of HIV continues to move at a fast pace.
“It’s important to stress that there are many different strains of HIV, but our ability to detect and treat the virus remains the same.
“Thanks to medical advances, HIV is now a long-term manageable condition and people on effective treatment can’t pass the virus on.
“Latest statistics from Public Health England show that around 7 per cent of people living with HIV in the UK are unaware of their status – that’s why regular HIV testing is vital and we will be getting that message out there as part of National HIV Testing Week later this month.
“We now have the tools to end new HIV transmissions once and for all, and breaking down barriers to testing will help us achieve that goal.”