The biggest concern with most viruses is that they become more deadly or become more contagious. This makes already deadly viruses such as HIV and Ebola terrifying. However, research seems to suggest that HIV is evolving into a weaker virus. All viruses rapidly mutate, they tend to be messy replicators and make many mistakes when replicating their genome. They also replicate at a faster rate than animal cells. Phillip Golder at Oxford says that HIV “can generate any mutation in the book, any day”, we are fortunate that it is mutating in our favor.
In Botswana, one of the first African countries to have an HIV epidemic, the time to develop AIDS from initial infection was 10 years on average at the onset of the epidemic but has grown to 12.5 years in the last 10 years. While this appears to be a not very significant, this could have broad implications if this trend continues—half a century down the line. HIV remains a very deadly disease and much research is being put into vaccines and treatment and we have made great headway in the past 20 years.
Because the virus mutates to evade the immune system, it slows the virus down and takes longer to replicate—ultimately infecting new cells at a slower rate. Research demonstrates the virus has slowed down by 10% and this effect magnifies clinically.
The vaccine for HIV has remained elusive and no one wants to wait for the effect of this “crippled HIV” virus to sort itself out on its own. But this study represents the first time HIV appears to be diminished at the population level and it also shed new molecular insights into how the virus is controlled in vivo perhaps prompting further research into different types of new treatments and possibly a vaccine.
-Will St. Amant