Scientists Identify First New HIV Subtype in Nearly 20 Years

A team of scientists have identified the first new subtype of HIV in 19 years.1 They announced the results in November 2019 in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes (JAIDS).2

How the new HIV strain found

The scientists come from Abbott, a global healthcare and technology company, and the University of Missouri-Kansas. They identified a new subtype of HIV-1, Group M: subtype L. Group M causes more than 90 percent of all HIV cases around the world. It was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa.1,3

Based on previous guidlelines

This is the first time that a new subtype of HIV has been identified since guidelines were set up in 2000. The guidelines indicate that three separate cases must be detected. The first two cases were found in Congo in 1983 and 1990.4

The third sample was found in Congo in 2001 as part of another study. Technology then could not complete the DNA sequence in such a small amount of virus. New technology recently allowed scientists to complete the DNA sequence of the virus. That confirmed that this sample was the same subtype as in the earlier two cases.2

The global impact of HIV/AIDS

Since the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, HIV has infected 75 million people. About 32 million people have died of HIV-related illness. It is estimated that nearly 38 million people are living with HIV today. The World Health Organization estimates that 1.7 million people newly acquired the virus in 2018.5

There is currently no need for alarm

It should not be surprising that HIV is still evolving. Viruses are known to be able to change over time. That’s why, for example, flu vaccines are modified every year.

Scientists don’t know yet if this new HIV subtype will affect people differently from other subtypes. However, they are not alarmed as there are not many people who are living with this new, specific HIV strain.4

Current HIV treatments can control many virus strains. Scientists believe the treatments can control this new strain, too.4

Why is the discovery important?

Finding new HIV subtypes is important and helpful for updating tests to screen blood and detect diseases. In the 1980s and 1990s, some blood donors were not aware that they were HIV positive. When their blood donations were added to the blood supply, the virus was consequently added to the existing blood supply. As a result, some patients who had blood transfusions during that time were susceptible and acquired the virus through that transmission event.3

Detecting the new subtype

HIV transmission risk from a blood transfusion is not a danger from the new HIV subtype. This is because current diagnostic tests are able to detect it.3 In fact, the blood supply in the United States has been safe for many years. Scientists have been vigilant in maintaining the blood supply with the continued use and development of rigorous diagnostic tests for the virus.

Rigorous diagnostic tests for viruses

Abbott’s tests screen more than 60 percent of the blood supply worldwide.3 Other companies that screen the rest of the blood supply can access details about new HIV strains in Abbott’s articles in scientific journals.

Abbott created a Global Viral Surveillance Program 25 years ago to track HIV and hepatitis viruses. They identify new strains to ensure that the diagnostic tests stay up to date. The program includes 78,000 samples from 45 countries.

No other new subtype of HIV have been identified since 2001.1

Discoverings and tracking new viral strains is helpful in that it allows scientists to stay one step ahead of HIV.

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