Number of HIV-1 founder variants is determined by the recency of the source partner infection

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Science  03 Jul 2020:
Vol. 369, Issue 6499, pp. 103-108
DOI: 10.1126/science.aba5443

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Sourcing HIV-1 infection

HIV-1 has a multitude of strain variants, but sexual transmission of HIV-1 is assumed to result from productive infection by only one virus particle. Knowing the genetics of the virus strains that are transmitted could be crucial for developing successful vaccine strategies. Using epidemiological and genetic data from 112 pairs of sexual partners, Villabona-Arenas et al. found that individuals with acute infections are more likely to transmit multiple founder virus strains. In a phylodynamic approach that integrated phylogenetic analysis of sequence data with simulation of a transmission chain, the authors showed that multiple variant transmission is doubled during the first 3 months of infection irrespective of whether transmission was heterosexual or by men who have sex with men.

Science, this issue p. 103


During sexual transmission, the high genetic diversity of HIV-1 within an individual is frequently reduced to one founder variant that initiates infection. Understanding the drivers of this bottleneck is crucial to developing effective infection control strategies. Little is known about the importance of the source partner during this bottleneck. To test the hypothesis that the source partner affects the number of HIV founder variants, we developed a phylodynamic model calibrated using genetic and epidemiological data on all existing transmission pairs for whom the direction of transmission and the infection stage of the source partner are known. Our results suggest that acquiring infection from someone in the acute (early) stage of infection increases the risk of multiple–founder variant transmission compared with acquiring infection from someone in the chronic (later) stage of infection. This study provides the first direct test of source partner characteristics to explain the low frequency of multiple–founder strain infections.

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