HIV, like most viruses, evolves continually and at a rapid pace. Its process of replication is through constant mutation, so HIV cells can generate thousands of mutations of themselves. Some mutations die off before they take control over the virus cells of a host body, and some mutations become a dominant factor in the local virus population. Mutations that help the cells survive the longest have the best chance of dominating, and although some believe this may make HIV a stronger virus over time, there is evidence now emerging that shows the possibility that HIV may evolve – eventually – into a weaker, more treatable, and possibly ineffective virus.

The research showing this new evidence comes out of Africa. Philip Goulder, from the University of Oxford, and his team of researchers looked at the HIV epidemics in Botswana and South Africa. The epidemic started in Botswana roughly ten years before it hit South Africa, so the researchers took blood samples from roughly 2,000 HIV positive women from these two countries to compare the DNA structures of the viruses in each population. HIV cells in infected Botswanan women had developed mutations which helped them evade the immune system. Although this sounds like a bad sign, the mutations – in helping the virus evade detection – crippled the virus in many ways. Mutations in the Botswanan women slightly slowed down the replication speed of the virus cells, causing a 10% decrease in replication time. This slight variation helped the women’s immune systems keep up with the virus for a few years longer, causing a longer period between initial infection and when the virus caused AIDS to develop (meaning the immune system had been compromised completely).

This mutation only occurred over 10 years between when Botswana had its HIV outbreak and when the HIV outbreak spread to South Africa, so in a relatively short amount of time (one decade), HIV naturally evolved into a weaker virus. Goulder, of the research team looking at these mutations, says, “HIV can generate any mutation in the book, on any day,” so he’s not surprised that big mutations like this could occur so quickly. This mutation changes the time that the virus causes AIDS in untreated infected individuals to go from roughly 10 years to 12.5 years, which could mean the difference of life and death for those awaiting treatment. These mutations are already showing researchers where to focus their attacks on the virus, possibly leading to the development of an effective HIV vaccine. And, with the virus already mutating in this fashion, HIV may evolve to the point where the virus never completely compromises the natural human immune system, and where the immune system alone could maintain and control the HIV virus indefinitely.