Objectives: To evaluate the sensitivity and specificity of RNA and DNA polymerase chain reaction (PCR) for early diagnosis of perinatal HIV-1 infection and to investigate early viral dynamics in infected infants.
Design: A cohort study of 395 non-breastfed infants born to HIV-infected mothers in a randomized clinical trial of short-course antenatal zidovudine.
Methods: Infant venous blood specimens collected at birth, 2 months, and 6 months of age were tested by qualitative DNA and quantitative RNA PCR (Roche Amplicor). To determine sensitivity and specificity of DNA and RNA PCR, results were compared with later DNA PCR results and to antibody results at 18 months. The HIV-1 subtype of the mother's infection was determined by peptide serotyping.
Results: In the study, 92% of mothers were infected with subtype E. DNA PCR sensitivity was 38% (20 of 53) at birth, and 100% at 2 months (53 of 53) and 6 months (47 of 47). RNA PCR sensitivity was 47% (25 of 53) at birth and 100% (53 of 53) at 2 months. All samples that tested DNA-positive tested RNA-positive. Specificity was 100% for both DNA and RNA testing at all timepoints. For infected infants, the median viral load of RNA-positive specimens was 407,000 copies/ml (5.6 log10) at birth, 3, 700,000 copies/ml (6.6 log10) at 2 months, and 1,700,000 copies/ml (6.2 log10) at 6 months. Infant RNA levels at 2 and 6 months did not differ by maternal zidovudine exposure, or RNA level at birth.
Conclusion: This RNA PCR assay performed well for diagnosing perinatal HIV subtype E infection, detecting nearly half of infected infants at birth, and 100% at 2 and 6 months, with 100% specificity. Infected infant viral RNA levels were very high at 2 and 6 months, and were unaffected by maternal zidovudine treatment.