New aggressive strain of HIV identified in Cuba

Posted Feb 16, 2015 by Karen Graham
A very agressive form of the HIV virus has been identified in Cuba, capable of turning into full-blown AIDS in less than three years. Doctors fear the disease can progress so quickly that treatment with drugs will be ineffective.
The facade of  El Mejunje  cultural centre in Santa Clara  Cuba.
The facade of "El Mejunje" cultural centre in Santa Clara, Cuba.
On Saturday, Jan. 13, Belgian doctor Anne-Mieke Vandamme, told Voice of America that Cuban health officials had contacted her, alerting her to a more aggressive form of AIDS they were seeing and wanting to find out what was happening.
Without treatment, an HIV infection usually takes from five to ten years to turn into AIDS, according to Vandamme, who published a study titled CRF19_cpx is an Evolutionary fit HIV-1 Variant Strongly Associated With Rapid Progression to AIDS in Cuba, in the journal EBioMedicine on Jan. 15, 2015.
The study undertaken by Vandamme and her research team involved three groups of patients. The groups included a total of 95 HIV-1 patients, where 52 were classified as AIDS-RP, 21 as non-AIDS, and 22 as chronic-AIDS. Most of the patients were male and all had been tested as negative for HIV within the previous 9.3–24.0 months before getting a positive blood test.
The strain of HIV being seen in Cuba has become epidemic among newly infected patients who reported having unprotected sex with multiple partners. The HIV strain is a combination of three subtypes, and progresses so fast that researchers at Belgium’s Catholic University of Leuven say they are fearful that people infected with the virus may not seek antiviral treatment until it's too late.
Dr. Vandamme also pointed out that generally, a patient's progression from HIV to AIDS has a lot to do with their immune system and how strong it may be. But with this mutated variation, it is different. “Here we had a variant of HIV that we found only in the group that was progressing fast. Not in the other two groups. We focused in on this variant [and] tried to find out what was different. And we saw it was a recombinant of three different subtypes,” she said.
The new variant is called CRF19, and is a combination of HIV subtypes A, D and G. While this variant has been seen in Africa, there have been very few cases, while in Cuba, it is more widespread.
Hector Bolivar, is a physician and infectious disease specialist with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, and he says the HIV research community has known for a long time about the capacity of the virus to mutate. Today, there are more than 60 strains of the HIV-1 virus in the world. “The only thing now,” he said, “is that in Cuba, it is associated with rapid progression [of the disease]. It’s something that hasn’t been seen before that clearly.”