By Sola Ogundipe
For the first time in almost two decades, a new strain (sub-type) of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, HIV, has been discovered.
A team of scientists from Abbott, a global healthcare company, announced today that it identified the new HIV subtype, called HIV-1 Group M, subtype L.1.
Findings from the study, entitled “Complete genome sequence of CG-0018a-0 establishes HIV-1 subtype L, ” are published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, JAIDS.
The study shows the role that next-generation genome sequencing is playing in helping researchers stay one step ahead of mutating viruses and avoiding new pandemics.
Announcing the development, Abbot said it is making the new strain accessible to the global research community to evaluate its impact on diagnostic testing, treatments, and potential vaccines.
There are over 60 different epidemic strains of HIV-1 in the world. But usually different regions are dominated by only one or two of them.
According to UNAIDS, HIV-1 is the most widespread HIV type worldwide. HIV-2, a less prevalent and less pathogenic (disease-causing) type, is the type principally found in Nigeria and most parts of West Africa.
Researchers continue to monitor for new strains to make sure testing and treatments continue to work.
In response, one of the study authors, Dr. Carole McArthur, noted: “In an increasingly connected world, we can no longer think of viruses being contained to one location.”
According to MacArthur who is a professor in the departments of oral and craniofacial sciences, University of Missouri: “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.”
In the views of Dr. Mary Rogers, a principal scientist and head of the Global Viral Surveillance Programme,
Diagnostics, Abbott: “Identifying new viruses such as this one is like searching for a needle in a haystack.
“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.”
The research, Abbot noted, marks the first time a new subtype of “Group M” HIV virus has been identified since guidelines for classifying new strains of HIV were established in 2000.
Group M viruses are responsible for the global pandemic, which can be traced back to the Democratic Republic of Cong, DRC, in sub-Saharan Africa.
Explaining the rationale, Abbot said to determine whether an unusual virus is, in fact, a new HIV subtype, three cases must be discovered independently.
It remarked that the first two samples of this subtype were discovered in the DRC in the 1980s and the 1990s. The third, collected in 2001, was difficult to sequence at that time because of the amount of virus in the sample and the existing technology.
“Today, next-generation sequencing technology allows researchers to build an entire genome at higher speeds and lower costs.”
In order to utilise this technology, Abbott scientists had to develop and apply new techniques to help narrow in on the virus portion of the sample to fully sequence and complete the genome.
As a leader in blood screening and infectious disease testing, Abbott created its Global Viral Surveillance Programme 25 years ago to monitor HIV and hepatitis viruses and identify mutations to ensure the company’s diagnostic tests remain up to date.
As part of this research, Abbott scientists confirmed that its core and molecular laboratory diagnostic tests can detect this new HIV strain.
Infection with HIV is incurable. Since the beginning of the global AIDS pandemic, 75 million people have been infected with HIV and 37.9 million people are living with the virus.
In Nigeria, data from the Nigeria HIV/AIDS Indicator and Impact Survey, NAIIS, conducted in 2018 showed that there are 1.9 million Nigerians living with HIV.