HIV transmission: can mosquitoes transmit the AIDS virus to people?

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A recurring theme that creeps into our collective consciousness to fuel our irrational fears: Is HIV transmitted through mosquito bites?

Malaria mosquito

It is impossible to get infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) from a mosquito bite. However, the topic is still regularly discussed on certain online platforms and social networks. Although the knowledge of the transmission of this AIDS virus, which causes AIDS, is now well established among scientists, it is not always known to everyone.

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In contrast to the Zika virus or malaria parasites, HIV cannot be transmitted to humans by mosquitoes. First, it’s not that easy for a virus to spread through mosquitoes, whether it’s HIV or not. You may think that an insect that ingests a virus from an infected person during a blood meal can pass it on to a healthy person the next meal. In fact, it’s a little more complicated.

Transmission of viruses by mosquitoes is not that easy

Once a virus has been ingested during a blood meal, it has to withstand the hostile environment in the mosquito’s intestines (acid, digestive enzymes …). It then has to reach the cells of the intestinal wall and find an anchor point to invade the cells and multiply, which is not without problems.

After the viral load (that is, the amount of virus) increases, the virus must be released into the mosquito’s body, infect the salivary glands and reproduce again. And only there the anticoagulant saliva, which was stored in the cavities of the salivary glands (lumens), could be injected into a new host during the mosquito’s next blood meal.

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Each virus has its own specific requirements

HIV virus

HIV virus

Furthermore, not all viruses are created equal: some viruses penetrate cells more easily and reproduce more easily than others. This is the case with the Zika or Chikungunya viruses. Hepatitis C virus and HIV, on the other hand, are much more “sophisticated”: They only infect a few very specific cell types that are not found in all types.

In humans, the main targets for HIV are helper T cells, monocytes, macrophages, and dendritic cells. These cells are essential for the proper functioning of the immune system. The virus is able to recognize “anchors” or markers known as CD4 receptors expressed on the surface of these cells and to bind to them. This is how the virus multiplies and spreads throughout the body.

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However, mosquito cells do not have these anchors on their surface. Even if a mosquito were to feed on the blood of a person infected with HIV, the blood would not be able to get into the cells. Even if it did, it would not be able to reproduce if there were no cellular factors essential for reproduction. Therefore, HIV cannot infect the mosquito and can “actively” be transmitted to a person.

The HIV virus is unstable and does not last long.

Can the mosquito strain be a transmission vector if the insect that was just feeding on the blood of an HIV positive person immediately bites another person? This is also impossible for two reasons. The mosquito trunk contains two different channels: one for drawing blood and a smaller one for injecting saliva.

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Since the circulation is unidirectional, a mosquito can only transmit the virus if it is infected and the pathogen is found in the saliva after it has reproduced. As already mentioned, HIV cannot multiply in mosquito cells, this possibility can be ruled out. On the other hand, it is an unstable virus that does not survive long outside of the cells in which it reproduces or in body fluids.

Finally, it can be added that even if a mosquito with a proboscis covered with contaminated blood bites a person who is not immediately HIV positive, it will not be able to transmit the virus to them. Indeed, the viral load in the few infected lymphocytes that would be transmitted to this individual would be too low.

In a paper published over 20 years ago, it was shown that it takes ten million bites from infected mosquitoes for the viral load passively transmitted by the strain to be sufficient to infect a person

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