Fact Check: New Variant of COVID-19 Is NOT 'cov-AIDS' And Does Not Contain HIV or AIDS

Fact Check

  • by: Marlo Lee
Fact Check: New Variant of COVID-19 Is NOT 'cov-AIDS' And Does Not Contain HIV or AIDS Not A Mixture

Does the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 contain HIV or AIDS? No, that's not true: Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, and Benjamin Neuman, a professor of biology and chief virologist at Texas A&M University, told us that it may have originated in someone who may have HIV/AIDS because of the prominence of the disease in sub-Saharan Africa. However, the reason it originated in an HIV positive patient is because their immune system is compromised, which makes it a good place for the virus to mutate without being killed. It does not mean that HIV is a part of the new variant.

The claim appeared in a Facebook post (archived here) on November 27, 2021 with the caption:"Crossover episode! covAIDS-21, coming soon!". The user posted a screenshot, which reads:

UCL [University College London] Genetics Institute in London said it likely evolved during a chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient. South Africa has 8.2 million people infected with HIV, the most in the world. The beta variant, a mutation identified last year in South Africa, also may have come from an HIV-infected person.

This is what the post looked like at the time of writing:

Screen Shot 2021-12-07 at 11.10.51 AM.png

Facebook screenshot(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Tue Dec 7 16:00:21 2021 UTC)

The screenshot is a partial quote of comments posted to a science website by Professor Francois Balloux, computational biology chair in the University College London Division of Biosciences. Part of his hypothesis about the origin of the Omicron variant can be seen in the above Facebook post. He wrote "it likely evolved during a chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient." Balloux wrote Omicron should be monitored and analyzed, but that it's nothing to get overly concerned about unless the variant increases in frequency. Readers can see what Balloux and other experts are saying about the Omicron variant here at Britain's Science Media Centre.

Schaffner, a professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee, explained findings in a December 7, 2021 phone interview with Lead Stories. According to Dr. Schaffner, Balloux is trying to address how the Omicron variant has so many mutations. One of the hypothesis Balloux came to was that the coronavirus was able to do this by slowly and constantly multiplying in an immunocompromised patient. "They have a lot of HIV positive people in South Africa, maybe it was a HIV positive person ... That does not mean it contains anything from HIV. It just perhaps originated in an HIV positive person, which is what I think he is saying or alluding to ... Perhaps, [Omicron] had originated in the United States, we might say, 'Well, perhaps it originated in someone who was immunocompromised because of their ... chemotherapy,' or something like that."

Benjamin Neuman, a professor of Biology and Global Health Research Complex Chief Virologist at Texas A&M University told Lead Stories through email on December 7, 2021 that, "There is no solid evidence that Omicron arose through any process other than the normal mutations that the virus makes when copying itself." Neuman states that the Facebook post is saying that Omicron might have evolved in an immunocompromised person. However, this theory is entirely speculative. This letter from the New England Journal of Medicine in December 2020 that Neuman sent us while answering questions suggests SARS-CoV-2 can undergo "extreme evolution" in a person with a non-functional immune system.

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Lead Stories is working with the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 fact-checkers who are fighting misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about the alliance here.

Marlo Lee is a fact checker at Lead Stories. She is a graduate of Howard University with a B.S. in Biology. Her interest in fact checking started in college, when she realized how important it became in American politics. She lives in Maryland.

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