February 1997

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Holly Korschun, 404/727-3990 -

A sample of HIV-1-seropositive blood plasma collected in 1959 in Africa is the earliest known authenticated case of HIV-1 infection in the world, according to a report by David D. Ho, M.D., of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, Rockefeller University, New York, and Andre J. Nahmias, M.D., of Emory University, and colleagues, in a report in the Feb. 5 issue of Nature.

The character of HIV-1 sequences predating the epidemic is crucially important in defining the origin and subsequent evolution of the virus in humans. Considerable genetic diversity exists among viruses of different subtypes (designated A to J) in the major group of HIV-1, the form of HIV-I that dominates the global epidemic.

The HIV-1-seropositive plasma sample, now further defined by Dr. Ho and colleagues, was obtained in early 1959 from an adult Bantu male living in Leopoldville, Belgian Congo (Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo). In 1985, Dr. Nahmias and his team evaluated more than 2,000 plasma samples obtained from Africa between 1959 and 1982. They found only one to be seropositive for HIV-1, confirmed by further serological tests in conjunction with colleagues at Duke and Harvard. After a report in Lancet in 1986, Dr. Nahmias stored the material in a freezer until 1995, when it was retrieved and submitted to Dr. Ho for molecular genetic analysis.

The HIV-1 sequences from this sample were found to lie close to the ancestral node of viral subtypes B and D in a "family tree" of the major group. The results indicate that these HIV-1 subtypes, and perhaps all major-group viruses, evolved from a single introduction in Africa not long before 1959.

This report provides substantial evidence for the origin and time of entry of HIV-1 into the human population, and the findings deny a variety of speculative suggestions on the subject.

The current work also provides concern for the relevance of viral vaccine development by showing the great rapidity with which the HIV-1 virus changes into new subtypes, which already have different distributions in various parts of the world.


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