Oxford scientists trace HIV origin

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Oxford University scientists have pinpointed the origin of the HIV strain that accounts for the current global pandemic as being Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The project, a report of which was published in the leading journal Science was a collaboration between scientists at Oxford and at the University of Leuven in Belgium traced the genetic history of the HIV group M strain which originated in approximately 1920 and was transmitted from a primate to a human.

The pandemic has infected over 75 million people worldwide to date. While the Kinshasa transmission was not the first case of human infection or transmission, it was the infection that was responsible for the spread of HIV throughout Africa, and later the world.

Professor Oliver Pybus of the University’s Department of Zoology stated “It seems a combination of factors in Kinshasa in the early 20th Century created a ‘perfect storm’ for the emergence of HIV, leading to a generalised epidemic with unstoppable momentum that unrolled across sub-Saharan Africa.”

Dr Nunio Fara also of the Department of Zoology described the virus’s progression across Africa, saying ‘Our genetic data tells us that HIV very quickly spread across the Democratic Republic of the Congo, travelling with people along railways and waterways to reach Mbuji-Mayi and Lubumbashi in the extreme South and Kisangani in the far North by the end of the 1930s and early 1950s.

“This helped establishing early secondary foci of HIV-1 transmission in regions that were well connected to southern and eastern African countries. We think it is likely that the social changes around the independence in 1960 saw the virus ‘break out’ from small groups of infected people to infect the wider population and eventually the world.’

The team stated that much more research needed to be done on the role played by social factors in the spread of the disease throughout Africa.

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