Scientists have discovered that the new omicron variant may have originated in patients with HIV.
When omicron was still known as the variant B.1.1.529, Tulio de Oliveira, the person who discovered it, warned of “a very unusual constellation of mutations,” the significance of which was “still unclear”.
Just two weeks later, we still know little about this variant: we know that it appears to spread more easily and that it seems not to be as lethal as the delta variant, as most of those infected have recovered after experiencing only mild symptoms. However, we are likely to need a few more weeks to learn more details about this variant of the virus. Scientists have been studying the possible causes for such a large number of mutations, and now it appears that they may have found an answer: HIV.
According to De Oliveira, director of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) in South Africa, “the most plausible” origin of the omicron variant is a mutation that developed in a patient who was not able to eliminate the virus quickly.
Other investigators have already warned that they have found strange mutations of coronavirus in patients whose natural defense systems were weakened or suppressed by medications involved in the treatment of other illnesses.
De Oliveira believes that sub-Saharan Africa – where millions of immunosuppressed people have undiagnosed HIV or do not have access to treatment – has the perfect conditions to become a “factory of variants for the whole world”.
A study published in Nature Communications confirmed the case of a 58-year-old man being treated with immunosuppressive medication who tested positive with COVID-19 for more than six months. Another patient in the United States, also immunosuppressed, died in 2020 after 154 days of infection.
In both cases, the patient’s immune system fought in vain against the virus, leading to a mutation. Joshua Lederberg, the 1958 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, wrote an article in 1988 in which he explained how vaccines and antiviral medication exert a “selective pressure” on viruses and bacteria, which favoured adaptative mutations.
According to the United Nations, around 70% of the 37 million people infected with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa. This is also the region where the largest number of people have died from the virus and where there are fewest preventative measures.
UNAIDS has calculated that if the HIV services were to be interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, there could be around half a million more AIDS-related deaths in Africa, where the illness has killed ten times more people than war.
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