(See the Editorial Commentary by Loes, on pages 1280–2.)
Background. In the context of sexual transmission of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1), current findings suggest that the mucosal barrier is the major site of viral selection, transforming the complex inoculum to a small, homogeneous founder virus population. We analyzed HIV-1 transmission in relation to viral and host characteristics within the Zurich primary HIV-1 infection study.
Methods. Clonal HIV-1 envelope sequences (on average 16 clones/patient) were isolated from the first available plasma samples during the early phase of infection from 145 patients with primary HIV-1 infection. Phylogenetic and tropism analyses were performed. Differences of viral diversities were investigated in association with several parameters potentially influencing HIV-1 transmission, eg, concomitant sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and mode of transmission.
Results. Median viral diversity within env C2-V3-C3 region was 0.39% (range 0.04%–3.23%). Viral diversity did not correlate with viral load, but it was slightly correlated with the duration of infection. Neither transmission mode, gender, nor STI predicted transmission of more heterogeneous founder virus populations that were found in 16 of 145 patients (11%; diversity >1%). Only 2 patients (1.4%) were assuredly infected with CXCR4-tropic HIV-1 within a R5/X4-tropic--mixed population, as revealed and confirmed using several genotypic prediction algorithms and phenotypic assays.
Conclusions. Our findings suggest that transmission of multiple HIV-1 variants might be a complex process that is not dependent on mucosal factors alone. CXCR4-tropic viruses can be sexually transmitted in rare instances, but their clinical relevance remains to be determined.