Study: HIV becoming less deadly – but still far from harmless

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New research suggests HIV is evolving to become less deadly and less infectious, although scientists warn the virus is still an “awfully long way” from becoming harmless.

A team at the University of Oxford found that as HIV adapts to the human immune system it not only becomes less deadly but also less infectious.

The main indicator, the scientists conducting the research said, is that HIV is taking longer to transition to AIDS.

The Oxford researchers came to this conclusion by comparing HIV infections in Botswana with those in South Africa, where the virus arrived 10 years later.

They found that the time from the contracting of HIV to its emergence as full-blown AIDS was 10% longer in Botswana than in South Africa.

Oxford University Professor Phillip Goulder told the BBC: “It is quite striking. You can see the ability to replicate is 10% 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.

“The virus is slowing down in its ability to cause disease and that will help contribute to elimination.”

The findings in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences also suggested anti-retroviral drugs were forcing HIV to evolve into milder forms.

Prof Andrew Freedman, a reader in infectious diseases at Cardiff University, said this was an “intriguing study”.

He said: “By comparing the epidemic in Botswana with that which occurred somewhat later in South Africa, the researchers were able to demonstrate that the effect of this evolution is for the virus to become less virulent, or weaker, over time.

“The widespread use of antiretroviral therapy may also have a similar effect and together, these effects may contribute to the ultimate control of the HIV epidemic.”

But he cautioned 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”.

Dr Michael Brady, Medical Director at Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “This study gives an interesting insight into how viruses adapt to their environment and evolve over time. However, if left untreated HIV still leads to AIDS and death. Effective drug treatments mean people living with HIV today can have a near normal life expectancy and be non-infectious to others. Our efforts should remain focused on encouraging the quarter of people with HIV in the UK who remain undiagnosed to come forward for testing, and ensuring they have access to treatment and care as early as possible.”

World AIDS Day was yesterday marked around the world. Figures from UNAIDS show more than 35 million people are living with HIV across the planet.

Since the start of the epidemic, more than 35 million people have died from AIDS.

Figures released last month from Public Health England showed 3,250 gay and bisexual men were diagnosed with HIV last year – the highest ever figure.

One in eight gay and bisexual men in London is HIV positive.

There are now nearly 110,000 people living with HIV in the UK. Around a quarter of these (26,100) are unaware of their infection and at risk of passing on the virus to others through unprotected sex.