HIV, the virus that causes Aids, is slowly weakening according to findings of a study published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on December 1.
The team at the University of Oxford found that the virus is being ‘watered down’ as it adapts to our immune systems. They allude to the fact that it is now taking long for HIV infection to cause Aids and that the changes in the virus may help efforts to contain the pandemic.
After looking at 2,000 women living with HIV in Botswana and South Africa, the researchers conclude that HIV is less virulent (aggressive) now because it evolves quickly, and more patients are naturally immune, according to the BBC.
Some virologists suggest the virus may eventually become ‘almost harmless’ as it continues to evolve.
“It is quite striking. You can see the ability to replicate is 10 per cent lower in Botswana than South Africa and that’s quite exciting. We are observing evolution happening in front of us and it is surprising how quickly the process is happening,” Prof Philip Goulder, the lead researcher from the University of Oxford, told the BBC News website.
Additionally, the ‘cost’ is a reduced ability to replicate, which in turn makes the virus less infectious and means it takes longer to cause Aids. This weakened virus is then spread to other people and a slow cycle of ‘watering-down’ HIV begins. Also, Prof Jonathan Ball, a virologist at the University of Nottingham, told the BBC that if the trend continues, then we might see the global picture change – a longer disease causing much less transmission.
“In theory, if we were to let HIV run its course, then we would see a human population emerge that was more resistant to the virus than we collectively are today – HIV infection would eventually become almost harmless. Such events have probably happened throughout history, but we are talking very large timescales,” he is quoted.
Prof Andrew Freedman, a reader in infectious diseases at Cardiff University, told the BBC that despite the intriguing research findings, HIV was ‘an awfully long way’ from becoming harmless and ‘other events will supersede that including wider access to treatment and eventually the development of a cure’.
Reaction from Uganda:
Prof Peter Mugyenyi, the director of Joint Clinical Research Centre (JCRC), a medical research centre focusing on HIVAids, says that the findings are not new to those in the research world.
“We know that HIV has been mutating over time and as it does so, it becomes less virulent. But we should not look at the end of Aids through this route rather, we should treat as many people as possible, effectively monitor those on treatment to bring the viral load down to undetectable levels and continue preventive messages of abstinence, being faithful, using condoms and safe male circumcision,” Prof Mugyenyi told The Observer in a phone interview, adding that we should not relax as HIV is becoming more and more drug-resistant.
The chairman of Uganda Aids Commission (UAC), Prof Vinand Nantulya, added that becoming less virulent over time is the natural course for many viruses and this should not be cause for Ugandans to relax.
“We should know that the infection still kills by greatly undermining one’s immune system and tuberculosis is still the largest killer of people with HIV,” he said.
In Uganda, TB causes nearly 50 per cent of deaths in people living with HIV. Despite the promising research findings, many people in Uganda still lack access to comprehensive HIV treatment and preventive services.
“Although we welcome the findings of this study, I urge all Ugandans to continue taking responsibility to prevent the disease,” cautioned Musa Bungudu, the UNAIDS Uganda country director.
Source : The Observer