Researchers in South Africa have found potentially dangerous coronavirus mutations in a 36-year-old woman with advanced HIV. The woman carried the Covid-19 virus for 216 days and during this period, the virus gathered more than 30 mutations.
The case report was published as a preprint in the medical journal medRxiv on 3 June. The report said that the woman was diagnosed with HIV back in 2006 and her immune system has weakened consistently over time. After she contracted Covid-19 in September 2020, the virus accumulated 13 mutations to the spike protein and 19 other genetic shifts that could change the behaviour of the virus.
Some of these mutations have been seen in variants of concern, such as E484K mutation, which is part of the Alpha variant B.1.1.7 (first seen in the UK), and N510Y mutation, which is part of the Beta variant B.1.351, (first seen in South Africa).
The researchers said that it was not clear if the woman passed on these mutations to others. However, researchers said it’s probably not a coincidence that most of the new variants have emerged from areas like KwaZulu Natal in South Africa, where more than 1 in 4 adults is HIV positive.
Though there is little evidence to suggest that HIV-infected people are more prone to contracting Covid-19 and developing severe medical consequences, researchers say if more such cases are found, patients with advanced HIV could “become a factory of variants for the whole world”.
Tulio de Oliveira, a geneticist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban and the study’s author, told the LA Times that immunosuppressed patients could carry Covid-19 virus longer than others. In the case of the woman, de Oliveira said she displayed only mild symptoms of Covid-19 during her initial symptoms, even though she was still carrying the coronavirus.
The researcher further called for expanding testing and treatment for those with undetected HIV as it “would reduce mortality from HIV, reduce transmission of HIV, and also reduce the chance of generating new Covid variants that could cause other waves of infections.”
If further studies suggest a strong link between mutation and the spread of Covid-19 virus in HIV patients, it would be a cause of worry for India, which has almost 1 million people with untreated HIV infections.