According to South African scientists, the hypothesis that the emergence of new Covid-19 variants could be linked to untreated HIV is “highly plausible.”
To investigate the link, a team of scientists has launched an investigation into mutations occurring inside infected people whose immune systems have already been weakened by other factors, including, but not limited to, untreated HIV, according to the BBC.
Covid-19 has already been found to linger for many months in patients who are HIV-positive but have not been taking the medications that would allow them to live healthy lives for a variety of reasons.
“Normally your immune system would kick a virus out fairly quickly, if fully functional,” Professor Linda-Gayle Bekker, Chief of Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation in Cape Town, was quoted as saying.
“In someone where immunity is suppressed, then we see viruses 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,” she added.
In line with this, the researchers discovered a South African woman who tested positive for Covid-19 for nearly eight months earlier this year, while the virus underwent more than 30 genetic shifts, according to the report.
Professor Tulio de Oliveira, who leads the team that confirmed the discovery of Omicron, was quoted as saying that “10 to 15” similar cases had been discovered in other parts of the world, including the UK.
“It’s a very rare event. But it is a plausible explanation that individuals that are immuno-suppressed can basically be a source of virus evolution,” he said.
According to Professor Salim Karim, a leading HIV specialist and former chair of the South African government’s Covid-19 advisory committee, the link between immunocompromised patients and new Covid variants is “a highly plausible hypothesis.”
“But it’s not proven. We’ve seen five variants come from four different continents,” Karim added.
At the same time, the scientists expressed concern about further stigmatising people living with HIV, both in South Africa, which has the world’s largest HIV epidemic, and globally.
“It’s important to stress that people who are on anti-retroviral medication – that does restore their immunity,” Bekker said.
Scientists tracking the virus, however, say they hope that concern about a possible HIV link will spur greater global action at a time when the fight against HIV has been neglected in some areas due to the pandemic.