Earliest Case of HIV Shows Virus' Origin

By Larson, Ruth | Insight on the News, March 9, 1998 | Go to article overview

Earliest Case of HIV Shows Virus' Origin


Larson, Ruth, Insight on the News


Scientists are discovering much about the origin of the virus that causes AIDS, although a cure remains elusive. Recent findings indicate that HIV evolved in Africa during the 1950s, and has diversified over the years.

Researchers have found what they believe is the earliest known case of the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, in plasma from an African man who died in 1959. Their molecular sleuthing has provided a glimpse at the earliest origins of the AIDS epidemic that has infected an estimated 30 million people around the world.

According to Thufu Zhu of the University of Washington in Seattle, HIV probably originated in the late 1940s or early 1950s. "This is a decade or two earlier than previous estimates of the introduction of HIV-1 into the human population," he told the Fifth Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, recently convened in Chicago.

Zhu now believes that all strains of HIV evolved from a single introduction of the virus into humans rather than from repeated transmissions from animals to humans, as some scientists had speculated. His findings have been published in the current issue of the journal Nature.

Researchers examined 1,213 blood samples gathered in Africa between 1959 and 1982. The HIV-1 virus was positively identified in just one sample, drawn in 1959 from a man who lived in Leopoldville, Belgian Congo -- now Kinshasa, Republic of Congo. The patient was suffering from symptoms that seemed to resemble sickle cell anemia, a hereditary blood disease.

The plasma sample had degraded during the course of 39 years, but scientists were able to isolate four small fragments of two viral genes. "This is, to date, the oldest known HIV case," says David Ho, director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at New York's Rockefeller University, who coauthored the study.

Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says the discovery was unlikely to help individuals now infected with HIV, but it could help researchers predict future evolutions of the virus. …

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