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Is Untreated HIV the Cause of the Omicron Variant?

South Africa
Photo by Laura James from Pexels

Some experts see a connection between the high rates of South Africans with untreated HIV and the latest COVID variant.

The world is now confronting COVID-19's latest mutation: the Omicron variant. The new, and potentially dangerous, form of the novel coronavirus has been detected in about two dozen nations, including the United States.

Scientists are not yet sure how this latest variant emerged, but some health experts point to conditions in South Africa, where Omicron was first identified. The South African doctor who first detected the highly-contagious Omicron last month believes an individual with a compromised immune system could mostly likely serve as the "origin story" of the variant. That doctor, Tulio De Oliveira, has been saying for months that people with untreated or under-treated HIV — someone who is not taking antiretrovirals for HIV or is not taking the drugs regularly — are at the most risk of creating a new COVID variant, according to the Los Angeles Times

In fact, De Oliveira points to this population of people as a potential "factory" for variants, and describes this group as largely young and likely unvaccinated against COVID. South Africa has one of the highest rates of HIV in the world, with about 2.2 million individuals with HIV that is undetected, untreated, or poorly controlled through irregular drug adherence. 

There is no confirmation yet that a person living with HIV — whether they knew they had HIV or not — is the cause of Omicron. But people with HIV not treated with medication clearly have compromised immune systems that create an ideal environment for the creation of variants and “statistically speaking, there are a variety of causes of immune suppression. And in southern Africa, one of the leading causes is HIV,” immunologist Dr. Bruce Walker told the Times.

Like most nations in Africa, South Africa is suffering disproportionately from COVID because vaccines have trickled into the country; only 24 percent of the public have been fully vaccinated, compared to about 40 percent of the global population.

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