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Simian Viral Strain Most Similar to HIV Found in Wild Gorilla Populations, Study Says

November 9, 2006

Scientists have discovered a virus in gorillas that is more similar to HIV than any other related HIV strain previously found in apes, according to a study published on Thursday in Nature, the Washington Post reports (Washington Post, 11/9). The finding is important in understanding what happens when the virus passes between species. The study marks the first time any researchers examined wild gorillas for a simian version of HIV, according to lead author Martine Peeters, a virologist at Universite Montpellier. Of the three known HIV-1 strains -- M, N and O -- M and N have been traced to apes in Africa infected with simian immunodeficiency virus, or SIV. But the origin of the O strain has not previously been identified (Reaney, Reuters Health, 11/8). Peeters and colleagues examined the fecal mater of 213 gorillas and 378 chimpanzees in Cameroon (Washington Post, 11/9). They found that six of the gorilla samples tested positive for an SIV strain. A genetic analysis showed that the strain, called SIVgor, was related to the O strain of HIV-1 (AFP/Today Online, 11/9). In humans, the O strain is found in roughly 1% of HIV/AIDS cases in Cameroon and neighboring countries (Reuters Health, 11/8). The study found that SIV also was detected in 40 of the chimpanzee samples, but such a finding was expected, according to AFP/Today Online. The fecal samples were collected from gorillas that lived within about 400 kilometers of one other, so the strain likely is endemic among their species, the researchers said (AFP/Today Online, 11/9). The strain might have been transmitted by chimpanzees to gorillas, the researchers said. "We think chimpanzees transmitted it to gorillas, but we don't know who transmitted it to humans -- the gorilla or the chimp," Peeters said (Reuters Health, 11/8). Peeters added that people who eat gorilla meat or use the meat in traditional medicines might be at risk of contracting HIV (Washington Post, 11/9). The researchers plan to conduct further studies to determine the prevalence, geographic distribution and history of SIVgor, as well as the means by which gorillas contracted the strain (University of Alabama release, 11/8).

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