Researchers in South Africa have documented the case of a woman with HIV who has been infected with COVID-19 for months and has watched the virus mutate inside her.
The 36-year-old woman first fell ill in September 2020 and has been testing positive for the disease for more than seven months.
In addition, the virus that remains in her body has undergone more than 30 genetic changes.
The team from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban says the results represent the first real evidence that patients with untreated HIV may have compromised immune systems that allow the coronavirus to take root and mutate into potentially fatal variants that could spread to others.
A 36-year-old South African woman with uncontrolled HIV contracted COVID-19 in September 2020 and was infected for seven months. Pictured: A retiree receives the first dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine in Johannesburg, South Africa on May 24
Six months after she became ill, two of the three medications she was taking to treat her HIV infection were switched, and after her viral load was suppressed, she eventually tested negative for COVID-19 (above)
The United Nations estimates that 7.5 million adults and children in South Africa are currently infected with HIV (immunodeficiency virus).
Once a person becomes infected with HIV, the virus begins attacking and destroying immune cells that normally protect the body from infection and can lead to the potentially deadly disease, AIDS.
In South Africa, HIV infections often go undetected, and it is believed that nearly 10 percent of people do not know they have the virus.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HIV patients who are under effective treatment are no greater risk of contact with the virus or more serious complications.
However, the results of the study, published on the pre-print site medRxiv.org, are the first evidence that HIV-infected people can mutate the virus multiple times in their bodies.
The South African patient was diagnosed with HIV in 2006, but doctors were unable to traditionally control her viral load antiretroviral therapy.
The combination or “cocktail” of drugs suppresses a person’s viral load until it is virtually undetectable, meaning it cannot be transmitted.
The woman had very low levels of CD4 + T cells, which help the body produce antibodies and CD8 + T cells help kill cells infected with coronavirus.
The woman visited a hospital in September 2020 after experiencing symptoms such as a cough, sore throat, and difficulty breathing for 12 days.
She tested positive for COVID-19, was given oxygen, and was discharged after nine days.
But even after she was discharged, the tests were still positive, which lasted 216 days.
The researchers found that the virus underwent 32 genetic changes, 13 of which were linked to the spike protein, which the virus was used to enter cells and infect them.
Researchers found that the virus mutated 32 times (above) in their body, including 13 changes in the spike protein that was used by the virus to enter cells and infect them
Other mutations were similar to those seen in variants, including the alpha variant (from the UK) and the beta variant (from South Africa).
During that time, the woman was one of 300 participants in a study that finally got rid of the infection that looked at the effects of HIV on COVID infection.
After six months of her research, two of the drugs in her “cocktail” were changed and within two weeks her viral load was suppressed.
Finally, on day 233 after she first tested positive, she finally tested negative.
It’s too early to tell if the woman is an isolated incident or not, but if she isn’t, it could mean that patients with uncontrolled HIV could spread potentially fatal variants.
They could “become a factory of variants for the whole world,” said lead author Dr. Tulio DeOliviera, a geneticist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, told the Los Angeles Times.
He added that the expansion of HIV tests and treatments “would reduce mortality from HIV, reduce the transmission of HIV and also reduce the likelihood of generating new variants of COVID that could cause other waves of infection.”