Scientists discover first new HIV strain in nearly two decades

The first two cases of the new strain emerged in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1983 and 1990, and the third sample showed up in Congo in 2001


                            Scientists discover first new HIV strain in nearly two decades

After nearly two decades, scientists have identified a new strain of the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. Though the strain first emerged in 1983 in Congo, its identity has remained elusive until now. 

The new strain, called HIV-1 group M subtype L, is an extremely rare one, Mary Rodgers, senior author of the paper announcing the finding and head of the Abbott Laboratories Global Viral Surveillance Program told Scientific American. It has emerged after 19 years. The findings published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes is a collaborative study between Abbott Laboratories and the University of Missouri, Kansas City. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were approximately 37.9 million people living with HIV at the end of 2018.

Scientists from Abbott stumbled upon the virus while screening blood samples. They screen more than 60% of the world’s blood supply, and the company continues to look for new strains and track those in circulation through various blood screenings, reports Scientific American. The company has developed means to accurately detect the virus strain, no matter where it happens to be in the world, explains Rodgers.

Abbott laboratories screen more than 60 percent of the world’s blood supply, and they continue to look for new strains and track those in circulation through various blood screenings (Getty images)

Scientists had seen the strain before. They found the strain in two samples from the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1983 and 1990. It showed up again in 2001 in Congo. According to experts, the strains were detected thrice independently, a step crucial to declare a new subtype or strain.

But a lack of concrete evidence meant that experts had to wait for sophisticated tests to confirm its unique identity.

Later, scientists at Abbott and the University of Missouri developed new techniques to study and map the 2001 sample. Rodgers said it was "like searching for a needle in a haystack," and then "pulling the needle out with a magnet," reports CNN.  By reading the genome of the virus, the team established that the virus was indeed a new strain.

However, experts believe that there is no need to worry just yet. "There's no reason to panic or even worry about it a little bit. Not a lot of people are infected with this. This is an outlier," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told CNN. He adds that current treatments for HIV may be effective against this strain and others.

According to the team, identifying a new strain could provide a more complete map of how HIV evolves. "This discovery reminds us that to end the HIV pandemic, we must continue to think [about] this continuously changing virus and use the latest advancements in technology and resources to monitor its evolution," says study co-author, Dr. Carole McArthur, a professor in the department of oral and craniofacial sciences at the University of Missouri, Kansas City.

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