Could this be the end of AIDS?

THE HIV virus is losing it killer potency, according to a leading research team that claim it is showing the effects of old age and beginning to weaken. The startling news emerged after experts examined the current day virus and compared it with a sample of the fatal germ taken some 15 years ago.

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By  David Robinson Published  October 2, 2005

THE HIV virus is losing it killer potency, according to a leading research team that claim it is showing the effects of old age and beginning to weaken. The startling news emerged after experts examined the current day virus and compared it with a sample of the fatal germ taken some 15 years ago. They discovered the current strain of HIV was significantly weaker than the initial virus that started the global epidemic in the 1980s and has so far claimed the lives of tens of millions of people. The results have stunned the medical world, which largely believed the eradication of the killer disease would come from the creation of a pioneering range of drug treatments. Head researcher on the study, Dr. Kevin Ariën, told Arabian Business: “Our findings suggest that viral adaptation is ongoing and that HIV may eventually degrade further over time.” The study, which was conducted by the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, confirmed the virus is not multiplying as aggressively as before and responds much better to treatment than it did nearly two decades ago. The centre is recognised for identifying the original source of the virus and is renowned for its leading research into the epidemic. Dr. Ariën, a chief molecular virologist at the institute, added: “We can only guess what will happen with HIV in the next decade, [but] we think the virus may indeed attenuate further over time.” HIV and AIDS have swept across the world over the past two decades, killing millions and bringing about untold suffering. The United Nations estimated that nearly 40 million people worldwide were living with HIV in 2004. In the same year, more than three million people died from the disease and around five million people acquired HIV, the virus that can infect the human immune system, leading to AIDS. More than 8000 people die as a result of the disease every day. The US government has set out a five-year US$15 billion global AIDS programme to fight the epidemic. In addition, pharmaceutical companies spend US$682 million annually on AIDS vaccine research. The institute’s study compared samples of the HIV virus from the 1986-1989 period with samples from 2002-2003, and found that the new viruses were considerably weaker than the old ones. Dr. Ariën said the possibility that the virulence of HIV virus is decreasing opens new insights into the evolution of the AIDS/HIV epidemic. “As a result of the pressure from both the human immune system and the consecutive transmissions from human to human, the HIV-virus has to constantly adapt itself,” he said. He added that the weakening of the virus may be because it is adapting to human beings, in the same way that the first HIV-like virus, found in monkeys and known as SIV, adapted to its primate hosts. “This tendency toward attenuation is a complicated process that is also seen in other viruses after they transfer from one species to another — in the case of the HIV virus from a monkey to a human being,” he added. However, Dr. Ariën warned that despite evidence the virus may be weakening, people should not decrease the amount of preventive measures they employ to reduce the risk of catching the virus, such as the use of condoms. Oliver Wright, a spokesman from London-based AIDS charity, the Terrence Higgins Trust, said it was possible the HIV virus was weakening, but urged caution because the same process of mutation could make it more difficult to treat in years to come. “The way the HIV virus mutates is most often seen as making it a more dangerous virus because it can allow the virus to overcome drug treatments,” he said. “There have been some suggestions that mutated strains of the virus may well be less aggressive… but we will take [the study’s findings] with a little bit of caution and wait and see if this is backed up by other research in the near future.”

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