Scientists Trace HIV Origins Back To The 1920s, Call Conditions For Its Transmission A ‘Perfect Storm’

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, may have first reached global attention back in the 1980s, but new research in the journal Science has shown that HIV’s origins have been traced back to the 1920s in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Oliver Pybus, a professor at the University of Oxford, led a team of researchers that ultimately led to this conclusion, which was announced last Thursday. An excerpt of their paper summarizes their methods and findings.

“Thirty years after the discovery of HIV-1, the early transmission, dissemination, and establishment of the virus in human populations remain unclear. Using statistical approaches applied to HIV-1 sequence data from central Africa, we show that from the 1920s Kinshasa (in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo) was the focus of early transmission and the source of pre-1960 pandemic viruses elsewhere.”

National Geographic breaks down the technical details very well regarding how HIV’s origins were traced, saying the scientists analyzed “HIV genomes gathered over the past 30 years from 814 people in central Africa. They compared these full sets of DNA and used them to reconstruct a tree of viral evolution, extrapolating backward into HIV’s murky pre-epidemic history.”

“It was a very large and very rapidly growing area and colonial medical records show there was a high incidence of various sexually transmitted diseases,” Professor Pybus told BBC News of Kinshasa, where HIV’s origins were traced.

With the rapid growth in the area, along with increased transportation, millions of laborers used the various means of travel to get around the country. According to Reuters, by 1940, over 1 million people were using the railway system through Kinshasa each year. Naturally, to meet demands, sex work became a booming business and assisted in the spreading of HIV. In the recent study from Pybus, they attribute most of spread of HIV to this new way of life over the resilience of the virus.

In an interview with BBC News, Professor Jonathan Ball of the University of Nottingham commented on this very conclusion regarding HIV’s origins.

“It’s a fascinating insight into the early phases of the HIV-1 pandemic. It’s the usual suspects that are most likely to have helped the virus get a foothold in humans — travel, population increases and human practices such as unsafe healthcare interventions and prostitution. Perhaps the most contentious suggestion is that the spread of the M-group viruses had more to do with the conditions being right than it had to do with these viruses being better adapted for transmission and growth in humans. I’m sure this suggestion will prompt interesting and lively debate within the field.”

Thoughts on this newly discovered origin story of HIV? Had this “perfect storm” of conditions not been met when it did, would HIV and AIDS be the problem they are today?

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