HIV Virus Evolving: Becoming less Infectious and Eventually Harmless

The HIV virus is evolving into a milder form, and we can thank evolution, medical technology and the virus itself, for the development.

What makes the HIV virus so pernicious is its ability to mutate to evade the body’s immune defenses and adapt to the immune system.  However this strength may be the virus’ undoing.

When HIV infects someone with a particularly resilient immune system, the virus must mutate to adapt.

“[If] the virus is trapped between a rock and hard place, it can get flattened or make a change to survive and if it has to change then it will come with a cost,” said Prof Philip Goulder, from the University of Oxford.

The “cost” referred to by Prof Goulder, is the diminished ability to replicate itself.

Researchers from the University of Oxford are already witnessing this process take place.  They compared Botswana, an African country hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the late 1990’s, to South Africa, which was hit by the epidemic a decade later.

The researchers found that the HIV virus’ ability to replicate was 10% lower in Botswana than South Africa.

“We are observing evolution happening in front of us and it is surprising how quickly the process is happening. The virus is slowing down in its ability to cause disease and that will help contribute to elimination,” said Prof Goulder.

The news gets better.  Due to the increased effectiveness of anti HIV drugs, the HIV virus is being forced to evolve into milder versions at an accelerated pace.

The result; it takes longer for the virus to develop into full blown AIDS.  As the virus continually mutates, it may at some point take decades to develop into AIDS.

No one is declaring an end to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  35 Million people worldwide are infected with the HIV virus with over 2 million new infections occurring yearly.  However, with the development of newer anti-HIV drugs and the concerted effort to deliver them where they’re most needed, coupled with HIV’s natural mutating abilities, we could see a drastic reduction in AIDS and AIDS related deaths in the coming decades.

“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,” said Prof Jonathan Ball, a virologist at the University of Nottingham.

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