Objective(s): There is limited information on full-length genome sequences and the early evolution of transmitted HIV-1 subtype C viruses, which constitute the majority of viruses spread in Africa. The purpose of this study was to characterize the earliest changes across the genome of subtype C viruses following transmission, to better understand early control of viremia.
Design: We derived the near full-length genome sequence responsible for clinical infection from five HIV subtype C-infected individuals with different disease progression profiles and tracked adaptation to immune responses in the first 6 months of infection.
Methods: Near full-length genomes were generated by single genome amplification and direct sequencing. Sequences were analyzed for amino acid mutations associated with cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL) or antibody-mediated immune pressure, and for reversion.
Results: Fifty-five sequence changes associated with adaptation to the new host were identified, with 38% attributed to CTL pressure, 35% to antibody pressure, 16% to reversions and the remainder were unclassified. Mutations in CTL epitopes were most frequent in the first 5 weeks of infection, with the frequency declining over time with the decline in viral load. CTL escape predominantly occurred in nef, followed by pol and env. Shuffling/toggling of mutations was identified in 81% of CTL epitopes, with only 7% reaching fixation within the 6-month period.
Conclusion: There was rapid virus adaptation following transmission, predominantly driven by CTL pressure, with most changes occurring during high viremia. Rapid escape and complex escape pathways provide further challenges for vaccine protection.