Scientists study link between COVID variants and untreated HIV
Leading South African scientists will investigate COVID-19 and HIV in tandem, amid mounting evidence that the collision of the two pandemics could be generating new coronavirus variants, Reuters reports.
The team at the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa (NGS-SA), which first alerted the world to the COVID variant Omicron, said it was time for a systematic investigation of what happens when patients with untreated HIV get COVID-19.
Persistent coronavirus infections for months
Studies have found that people with weakened immune systems – such as patients with untreated HIV – can suffer from persistent coronavirus infections for months. The virus remains in their systems and accumulates mutations, some of which may give it an advantage.
In someone where immunity is suppressed, then we see virus persisting. And it doesn't just sit around, it replicates. And as it replicates it undergoes potential mutations. And in somebody where immunity is suppressed that virus may be able to continue for many months - mutating as it goes," commented to BBC Professor Linda-Gayle Bekker, who heads the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation in Cape Town.
Mutating as it goes
Some researchers believe this could be how Omicron and some of the other COVID variants developed, although other scientists believe it may have arisen in animals before spilling back over into humans.
Tongai Maponga, lead author of the recent paper and a researcher at Stellenbosch University, said he and colleagues at the NGS-SA were discussing more in-depth study to support the hypothesis.
The few cases that have so far been seen and described are happening just because of random surveillance," he told Reuters.
He said the work would focus on two elements: on the patients and how their systems deal with COVID-19 infection, and on proving whether new variants are likely to be emerging in this way.
"If that is the case we need to up our game with how we diagnose these people, and ensure that they are getting prompt diagnosis and treatment," he added.
But, as they push ahead with their research, the scientists are anxious to avoid further stigmatising people living with HIV, both in South Africa - home to the world's largest HIV epidemic - and globally.