University of Miami Researchers Are Studying Links Between COVID-19, HIV and Evolution of New Variants

People with HIV are more susceptible to getting COVID-19 and having a severe case. Researchers at the University of Miami Miller of School of Medicine are heading up an NIAID-funded study that will use artificial intelligence to observe the overlap of the two infectious diseases and the evolution new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and the University of Florida will look at evolving SARS-CoV-2 variants in people with both COVID-19 and HIV.

The collaborative five-year study is funded by the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and is being led by Maria Luisa Alcaide, M.D., professor of infectious diseases and director of the Miami Center for AIDS Research clinical core and Deborah Jones Weiss, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and co-director of the Center for HIV and Research in Mental Health.

The study came about after the duo realized that people with HIV are more susceptible to COVID-19, and that disease tends to be more severe in people living with HIV. That realization also led to the discovery that those with HIV are likely to develop new respiratory virus variants and SARS-CoV-2 more rapidly.

“We collected preliminary data very early in the pandemic and for this study, we are using a multidisciplinary approach to evaluate the development of SARS-CoV-2 mutations among people with HIV and predict the development of new variants of concern,” Jones Weiss said.

Alcaide added that people with HIV seem to be a good model for looking at new variants of SARS-CoV-2. What’s notable about this study is there will be an artificial intelligence (AI) component, with an algorithm that can predict the likelihood of new variants becoming viral.

“We decided to recruit people with HIV and COVID, as well as those with COVID without HIV and we will look at the evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 to look at the new variants,” she said, noting that each grouping will have 120 participants. “The information will be used to develop artificial intelligence that we hope will be able to detect new variants. Doing so will result in better planned and implemented public health measures before transmission occurs in the general population.”

As of early October, the researchers were finishing putting together protocols and bringing patients in. They are planning on studying participants who develop long COVID-19.

“If they have it for an extended period of time, we’re going to keep doing sampling,” Jones Weiss said. “We’ll be collecting blood, saliva, nasal swabs and then go to our collaborators at the University of Florida, and will be able to do more prediction from the samples collected.”

The AI component, therefore, is more of an advanced statistical method that allows prediction, she adds.

“These kinds of predictive methods have been used for a long time with large data sets, but what makes this novel is being able to take a predictive model like this and spin it out to be able to identify variants of concern,” Jones Weiss said. “At the moment, we are responding to things as they arrive. But this strategy says as the problem arises, being able to anticipate it and use it as a predictive model, and that’s really what we need to do.”