Both evolution and powerful antiviral drugs may be dealing a double blow to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), weakening its ability to replicate, according to a new study.
The study focused on the virus’ evolution in two countries severely hit by AIDS – Botswana and South Africa. The HIV epidemic started in Botswana about 10 years earlier than in South Africa.
The study was recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
To determine how HIV has changed over time, study co-author Philip Goulder, a research immunologist with the University of Oxford in England and his team sequenced the virus' genes from about 2,000 women in the two African countries, National Public Radio reported.
They found that in Botswanan women, the virus has become better at bypassing the immune systems of those infected by it.
Goulder told the BBC, "You can see the ability to replicate is 10 percent lower in Botswana than South Africa and that's quite exciting. The virus is slowing down in its ability to cause disease and that will help contribute to elimination."
In Botswana, at least, "anyone who is newly infected now with HIV is less likely to suffer disease than if they had been infected 20 or 30 years ago," Goulder told HealthDay News. "If this process continues, HIV will cause less and less disease."
What does this mean?
It means that it could take a little longer for some people to develop AIDS even if they don't receive HIV treatment. The mutations push back the average time to develop AIDS in Botswana from about 10 years to about 12.5 years, wrote NPR.
Two and a half years may not seem like much. But as Golder told NPR, "those changes in the virus occurred in just 10 years. If we roll forward a few decades, the evolution of the virus could have a massive effect. We'll have to see if the trend continues."
It’s important to note that even a weaker version of HIV is still dangerous and can cause AIDS.
The team’s research also suggested that powerful antiviral drugs are putting additional pressure on HIV and decreasing its ability to replicate, stated the Los Angeles Times.