Since the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was first discovered in the United States nearly four decades ago, several strains have been identified — allowing doctors to better tailor diagnostic testing and drug treatments.
Now, for the first time in 19 years, a new type of HIV has been named, subtype L of the HIV-1 M Group, thanks to researchers with Abbott Laboratories and the University of Missouri, Kansas City. The newly revealed strain, discussed in Wednesday’s issue of Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, is in the same family of subtypes that caused the devastating global pandemic.
Scientists such as Abbott’s Mary Rodgers say it’s crucial to understand the various strains to ensure tests for the virus are accurate.
“It can be a real challenge for diagnostic tests,” Rodgers, a co-author of the report, told CNN. Her laboratory has analyzed more than 60% of the global blood supply. They’re always looking for new HIV types so they can “accurately detect it, no matter where it happens to be in the world.”
But that shouldn’t be concerning to that average patient, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the news outlet.
“There’s no reason to panic or even to worry about it a little bit,” said Fauci, who was not involved in the study. “Not a lot of people are infected with this. This is an outlier.”
To be officially declared a subtype, researchers needed at least three proven cases of subtype L. The first two were pinpointed in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1983 and 1990. The third suspected case was also drawn from Congo in 2001, but it wasn’t a close enough match to the previous samples to be sure, and thorough genomic testing wasn’t as accessible a decade ago as it is today.
Researchers spent years developing new techniques to trace the sample. Rodgers described it as “searching for a needle in a haystack.”
Doctors don’t yet know how if this strain differs from how others manifest in the body, but are confident that current drug treatments will also be effective on subtype L.
“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,” wrote study co-author Dr. Carole McArthur of UMKC in a press release.
According to the World Health Organization, around 38 million people worldwide are living with HIV, over two-thirds of which are in Africa. New cases of HIV have fallen more than 37% in almost two decades, but UNAIDS estimates that acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), the most advanced stage illness caused by HIV, claimed the lives of some one million in 2018.
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