Origins of HIV-1 pandemic identified

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Scientists have pinpointed the origin of the HIV-1 group M pandemic, the event that led to the international spread of the virus, to Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), in the 1920s.

The HIV-1 pandemic resulted in almost 75 million infections to date, Nuno R. Faria, of the University of Oxford, and colleagues reported in Science. The combination of factors such urban growth, strong railway links during Belgian colonial rule, and changes to the sex trade contributed to the emergence of HIV from Kinshasa to the rest of the world.

“Until now most studies have taken a piecemeal approach to HIV's genetic history, looking at particular HIV genomes in particular locations,” said Oliver Pybus, one of the team’s researchers in a press release from the University of Oxford.

“For the first time we have [analyzed] all the available evidence using the latest phylogeographic techniques, which enable us to statistically estimate where a virus comes from. This means we can say with a high degree of certainty where and when the HIV pandemic originated,” explained Pybus.

Kinshasha’s advanced railway system made it one of the most accessible countries on the African continent, and the DRC saw a rapid spread of HIV in its travelers. “By the 1960s transport systems, such as the railways, that enabled the virus to spread vast distances were less active, but by that time the seeds of the pandemic were already sown across Africa and beyond,” explained Pybus.

More research into the social factors that may have contributed to the origin of the HIV pandemic is needed to shed light into the conditions that helped HIV grow so widely.

Origins of HIV-1 pandemic identified
Origins of HIV-1 pandemic identified

An international team, led by Oxford University and University of Leuven scientists, has reconstructed the genetic history of the HIV-1 group M pandemic, the event that saw HIV spread across the African continent and around the world, and concluded that it originated in Kinshasa.

The team's analysis suggests that the common ancestor of group M is highly likely to have emerged in Kinshasa around 1920 (with 95% of estimated dates between 1909 and 1930).

HIV is known to have been transmitted from primates and apes to humans at least 13 times but only one of these transmission events has led to a human pandemic. It was only with the event that led to HIV-1 group M that a pandemic occurred, resulting in almost 75 million infections to date.

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