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Newly discovered ‘highly infectious’ HIV variant was detected in the Netherlands, not South Africa

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Author(s): Tendai Dube, AFP South Africa

A Facebook post claims that a virulent variant of HIV was recently discovered in South Africa. The claim is false; the variant was found predominantly in the Netherlands by Oxford University researchers, who also reassured the public that despite the variant’s increased transmissibility, it is treatable with standard antiretrovirals.

The post published on February 9, 2022, includes a picture showing a man’s forehead spotted with acne, and a link to a blog article.

“A new HIV variant has been discovered in  South Africa and if you have any of these symptoms you maybe having it (sic),” the post’s caption reads.

A screenshot of the false post, taken on February 11, 2022

The linked article does not specify any symptoms as suggested in the post. While it does include extracts of accurate information from credible news outlets, some of the reporting has alarmist undertones.

For example, the article falsely claims that “according to them the new variant of HIV is spreading like wild fire in Europe (sic)”.

The post was published on a Facebook page with more than 760,000 followers and named after local political party leader, Julius Malema.

But the claim about the variant being discovered in South Africa is false.

Highly virulent strain

On February 4, 2022, Oxford researchers announced the discovery of a highly virulent strain of HIV that has been lurking in the Netherlands for decades. However, because of the effectiveness of modern treatments, the strain is “no cause for alarm”.

As reported by AFP, their analysis showed that patients infected with the “VB variant” had 3.5 to 5.5 times higher levels of the virus in their blood than those infected with other variants, as well as a more rapidly fading immune system.

But the study also found that after starting treatment, individuals with the VB variant had similar immune system recovery and survival to people with other HIV variants.

“There’s no cause for alarm with this new viral variant,” Oxford epidemiologist Chris Wymant, the lead author on the paper, told AFP.

The variant likely arose in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the Netherlands, according to the researchers, but began to decline around 2010 – meaning it’s unlikely to be prevalent in South Africa, as the Facebook post falsely claims.

In total, researchers found 109 people infected with the VB variant, with only four living outside the Netherlands and only in Western Europe.

No mention was made of South Africa.

In patients infected with the VB variant, CD4 decline occurred twice as fast compared to other variants, “placing them at risk of developing AIDS much more rapidly,” the researchers said.

CD4 cells are the white blood cells that help the body combat infections, and CD4 count is used for patients with HIV to evaluate immune function and to see whether HIV medications are effective.

“Because the VB variant causes a more rapid decline in immune system strength, this makes it critical that individuals are diagnosed early and start treatment as soon as possible,” the Oxford University press statement noted.

The research team also found the VB variant to be more highly transmissible, but similarly responsive to normal HIV treatment protocols if caught early.

“Reassuringly, after starting treatment, individuals with the VB variant had similar immune system recovery and survival to individuals with other HIV variants,” reads a line from the press statement.

South African epidemiologist Professor Salim Abdool Karim also told broadcaster eNCA on February 9, 2022, that there was no need for concern.

“VB is able to cause a more severe infection, fortunately though, it’s readily amenable and it’s treatable with all of the standard antiretrovirals.”

South Africa has one of the highest populations of HIV-infected people, with more than eight million people in the country estimated to be living with the disease.

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Originally published here.