New HIV Strain Shows Epidemic is 'Still Evolving' and Not 'Under Control,' Warn Scientists

Scientists have discovered the first new strain of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in almost two decades.

The rare strain is called HIV-1 group M subtype L, according to a statement by Abbott Laboratories, a medical devices and health care firm which helped to find it.

HIV comes in two main types: the more common HIV-1, and HIV-2 which is less infectious and makes up around only 0.01 percent of cases. Both of these have their own strains. A strain is a genetic variant of a bug, like a virus or bacteria. They emerge when a virus replicates and its genetic code changes.

HIV-1 itself is categorized into four groups, including M, which is the cause of 90 percent of HIV cases and therefore responsible for the global epidemic. Scientists have traced the M group viruses to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Group M was previously thought to have nine strains: A, B, C, D, F, G, H, J, and K. C is the most common strain worldwide, but in the U.S. it's B.

In 2000, guidelines were published for classifying new forms of HIV. This is the first in group M to be identified since then.

For a strain to be classed as a subtype, three separate cases must be pinpointed. In this instance, two were found in the DRC in the 1980s and 1990s, while the third sample was found in 2001. It was collected as part of a HIV prevention study for the prevention of mother to child transmission.

But scientists weren't able to look at the whole genome of the sample as it was too small. Thanks to new technology, they now can, Abbott said in a statement.

Experts stressed the findings published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome shouldn't spark worry.

Michael Brady, medical director at the HIV and sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), told Newsweek: "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."

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN existing HIV drugs can treat the strain.

Fauci assured: "There's no reason to panic or even to worry about it a little bit. Not a lot of people are infected with this. This is an outlier."

Abbott said in a statement that the study shows how important advances in genome sequences are in helping researchers "stay one step ahead of mutating viruses and avoiding new pandemics."

Researchers constantly look for new strains to make sure testing and treatments are up-to-date. Mary Rodgers, an expert in infectious diseases at Abbott, co-authored the paper, told Scientific American the company tests 60 percent of worldwide bloody supply for this purpose.

Rodgers said in a statement: "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," she said.

Co-author Dr. Carole McArthur, professor in oral and craniofacial sciences at University of Missouri, Kansas City, said in a statement: "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."

Jonah Sacha, a professor at the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute at Oregon Health & Science University, who did not work on the study, told Scientific American: "This tells us that the HIV epidemic is still ongoing and still evolving.

"The calling card of HIV is its diversity. That's what's defeated all of our attempts to create a vaccine."

"People think it's not a problem anymore, and we've got it under control. But, really, we don't," Sacha said.

Michael Worobey, head of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, who also didn't work on the study, argued in an interview with Scientific American: "It's actually misleading to describe genetic diversity from the [Democratic Republic of the] Congo as a new subtype."

Worobey said a new strain should only be classed as a subtype of the virus if it has spread far from Central Africa.

According to the latest figures from the World Health Organization, 37.9 million were living with HIV in 2018, with 62 percent of them receiving antiretroviral treatment. Most of those with the condition live in Africa, followed by South East Asia, the Americas, Europe, and the Western Pacific.

People on effective HIV treatment can't pass on the virus. And those at risk of getting HIV can take a drug called PreP to prevent them from catching it.

Brady from THT, said: "Thanks to medical advances HIV is now a long-term manageable condition and people on effective treatment can't pass the virus on."

scientist, lab, health, stock, getty
A stock image shows a scientist in a lab. A new strain of HIV has been identified. Getty