South African scientists, who were lauded for discovering Omicron, are investigating the “highly plausible hypothesis” that the emergence of new Covid-19 variants may be linked, in some cases, to mutations occurring within infected people whose immune systems have already been deteriorated by other variables such as, but not limited to, untreated HIV.
Researchers have already discovered that Covid-19 can linger 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,” said Professor Linda-Gayle Bekker, who heads the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation in Cape Town.
“In someone where immunity is suppressed, then we see virus 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.
However, as they continue their research, the scientists are concerned about further stigmatizing people living with HIV, both in South Africa, which has the world’s largest HIV epidemic, and globally.
“It’s important to emphasize that people on anti-retroviral medication do have their immunity restored,” Professor Bekker said.
Two cases of particular concern have recently been discovered in South African hospitals. Earlier this year, one woman tested positive for Covid-19 for nearly eight months, despite the virus undergoing more than 30 genetic shifts.
Professor Tulio de Oliveira, the team leader who confirmed Omicron’s discovery, stated that “10 to 15” similar cases had been discovered in other parts of the world, including the United Kingdom.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. However, it is a plausible explanation that immunocompromised individuals… can essentially be a source of virus evolution “He stated.
South African scientists have faced criticism – and even death threats on social media – after their recent discovery of the Omicron variant prompted Western nations to impose swift, contentious, and economically damaging travel bans.
They are eager to avoid any suggestion that their country or continent be singled out for developing new variants.
According to Professor Salim Karim, a leading HIV specialist and former chair of the South African government’s Covid19 advisory committee, the link between immunocompromised patients and new Covid variants is “a highly plausible hypothesis.”
“But it hasn’t been proven.” We’ve seen five different variants from four different continents. As a result, blaming Africa is simply absurd.
“It implies that we are unconcerned about immunocompromised people from the rest of the world.” “We’re only concerned if they’re black and African,” Professor Karim added.
Scientists also point out that there are numerous other reasons why people’s immune systems may be compromised around the world.
The emergence of the Alpha variant, for example, has been linked to a cancer patient receiving treatment in the United Kingdom.
“Diabetes, cancer, hunger, auto-immune diseases, chronic tuberculosis, obesity – we have a huge population with suppressed immunity for other reasons,” said Professor Marc Mendelson, head of infectious diseases at Cape Town’s Groote Schuur hospital.
Nearly eight million people in South Africa are infected with HIV. However, approximately one-third of them are not currently taking medication.
Masiphumelele, a crowded township south of Cape Town squeezed between rocky hillsides and the Atlantic Ocean, is estimated to have a quarter of its adult population infected with HIV.
“There’s lots of issues. Some [people] don’t want to get tested. Some don’t want to know. There’s stigma around HIV,” said a community liaison worker, Asiphe Ntshongontshi, 25, explaining why, despite a hugely effective health programme both here and nationwide, a significant number of people were not taking drug prescriptions.
There is currently no evidence that any of the current Covid variants of concern have emerged in Africa, though the unexpected arrival in southern Africa of a variant as transmissible as Omicron has fueled speculation that it may be linked to a local with a compromised immune system.
Scientists studying the virus hope that concern about a possible link to HIV will spur greater global action at a time when the fight against HIV has been neglected in some areas due to the pandemic.
“This need to understand how viral infections thrive in our global community is a global issue. Vaccination is currently the most effective tool we have for combating it. That message must be heard loud and clear “Professor Bekker stated.
While Africa remains far behind the rest of the world in terms of Covid vaccinations, South African researchers say it is critical to pay special attention to people with weakened immune systems, who may require four or even five booster shots for the vaccines to elicit an appropriate immune response.
“If we want to reduce the risk of new variants being created, we need to take on this challenge in every country around the world.” This is to ensure that immune-compromised people are fully vaccinated and have detectable immune responses to vaccines.
“If they do not develop an immune response, they must be given additional doses until they do.” “That’s our best defense against the possibility of immune-compromised people developing variants,” Professor Karim explained.