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New Delhi: In what is being hailed as a breakthrough in HIV treatment, scientists have found a large number of people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who, while being HIV-positive, have low to non-detectable viral load counts—without using drugs.

Such a low viral load without the use of anti-retroviral drugs in this population group —dubbed HIV elite controllers —holds the key to countering the HIV pandemic, said the scientists.

The results of their study of 10,000 people was published in The Lancet’s EBioMedicine journal on Tuesday.

The findings, the scientists said, may help researchers uncover biological trends within this population that could even lead to the development of vaccines.

The prevalence of HIV elite controllers was 2.7-4.3% in the DRC, compared to only 0.1-2% worldwide, said the researchers from Abbott, Johns Hopkins, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, University of Missouri, Kansas City and the Université Protestante au Congo.

The researchers studied plasma samples from surveillance efforts in 1987, 2001-03 and 2017-19 in the DRC, which is home to the oldest known HIV strains.

“The finding of a large group of HIV elite controllers in the DRC is significant considering that HIV is a life-long, chronic condition that typically progresses over time," said Tom Quinn, director of Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health, and chief of the international HIV-AIDS research section of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, US.

“There have been rare instances of the infection not progressing in individuals prior to this study, but this high frequency is unusual and suggests there is something interesting happening at a physiological level in the DRC that’s not random," said Quinn, one of the authors.

Since the beginning of the global AIDS pandemic, 76 million people have been infected with HIV and 38 million people today are living with the virus. With the origins of the HIV pandemic traced to sub-Saharan Africa, specifically the DRC, this region is of particular interest to researchers.

The new findings from Abbott researchers and partners are a continuation of virus hunting efforts that led to the identification of a new strain of HIV in 2019.

“Global surveillance work keeps us ahead of emerging infectious diseases and, in this instance, we realized we had found something that could be another step toward unlocking a cure for HIV," said Michael Berg, associate research fellow in infectious disease research at Abbott, and lead author of the study.

“The global research community has more work to do – but harnessing what we learn from this study and sharing it with other researchers puts us closer to new treatments that could possibly eliminate HIV," Berg said.


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