Scientists Discover First New HIV Strain in Two Decades

A technician extracts blood from a patient for an HIV test at the Condesa Clinic which specialises in HIV in Mexico City

Scientists began studying this third sample in order to map it and provide thorough evidence for a third strain, in a process described as being "like searching for a needle in a haystack", and then "pulling the needle out with a magnet". Group M is the most prevalent form of the HIV-1 virus.

"We conclude that the epidemiologically unlinked isolates CG-0018a-01, 83CD003, and 90CD121E12 may now be classified as HIV-1 group M, subtype L. This is the first new subtype classification identified since the nomenclature guidelines were established in 2009", the researchers wrote in the JAIDS article. The subtype belongs to the M group of HIV that is said to have caused the most infections.

Mary Rodgers, a coauthor of the study, told the network that identifying the strain as an entirely new subtype of the virus proved a "real challenge for diagnostic tests", which is why its existence is only coming to light now. However, scientists are confident that with enormous advances in medical technology since the New York Times reported on a "rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals" in July 1981, they will be able to effectively test for and treat the recently verified subtype.

While subtype L appears now restricted to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the scientists said, continued molecular surveillance would be essential to determine its true prevalence and other rare or emerging strains of HIV. This strain is very rare, and expected to have the same response to existing antiretroviral therapies, which work incredibly well; if diagnosed early, HIV positive people now have almost the same life expectancy as those who are HIV negative.

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.


Since the discovery of HIV in 1983, over 75 million people have been infected with HIV and over 37 million persons are living with the virus today.

In this instance, the first two were discovered in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1983 and 1990 respectively. According to the guidelines in 2020, to classify this new subtype, three cases must be discovered independently. A sample collected in 2001 showed some promising similarities, but it was hard to fully sequence. "Therefore, the CG-0018a-01 sequence will be important for determining the origins and age of subtype L", the researchers noted. The third sample was found later in 2001 as part of a study targeting mother-to-child transmission of the disease.

Researchers spent years developing new techniques to trace the sample. "We're sharing this strain with the scientific community so others can work on the strain and hopefully that can advance things like vaccines and treatments".

"We really need to be monitoring them to stay one step ahead of the virus", she said, adding that "the program now includes 78,000 samples from 45 countries".

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