Scientists could be on the cusp of developing new HIV treatments, including a vaccine, to eliminate the virus that triggered fear across Australia three decades ago.

At the peak of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the early 1990s, about 1,000 Australians died each year, with millions of people infected globally.

About 30,000 people remain infected across the country in 2021, however, there’s been a rise in transmissions among heterosexuals in recent years.

The virus harms people’s ability to fight other infections, with the most severe and deadly stage known as AIDS.

Current anti-viral drugs ensure HIV-positive patients’ immune systems are healthy to reduce the risk of the disease advancing, but they’re costly.

Hopes for a new treatment rose in recent months after a study of more than 10,000 people identified a rare group with controlled HIV in Africa.

Scientists found the group from the Democratic Republic of Congo – where the disease originated – tested positive for HIV antibodies but had low to non-detectable viral load counts without antiretroviral therapy.

These people are known as HIV elite controllers, researchers from the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases say.

The discovery could lead researchers closer to their goal of ending the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which has killed about 39 million people globally.

“Finding of a large group of HIV elite controllers in the DRC is significant considering that HIV is a life-long, chronic condition that typically progresses over time,” Johns Hopkins Centre for Global Health director Tom Quinn said.

Dr Quinn said there had been previous cases where the virus did not progress in a small number of people but the high-frequency in the DRC suggested there was something happening at a physiological level that’s not random.

“The global research community has more work to do but harnessing what we learn from this study and sharing it with other researchers puts us closer to new treatments that could possibly eliminate HIV,” Abbott principal scientist and study author Mary Rodgers said.

The study was published in The Lancet’s EBioMedicine.


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