Context: Many patients infected with human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) and receiving highly active antiretroviral therapy experience intermittent episodes of detectable viremia ("blips"), which may raise concerns about drug resistance, lead to costly repeat measurements of viral RNA, and sometimes trigger alterations in therapy.
Objective: To test the hypothesis that blips represent random biological and statistical variation around mean steady-state HIV-1 RNA levels slightly below 50 copies/mL rather than biologically significant elevations in viremia.
Design, setting, and patients: Between June 19, 2003, and February 9, 2004, patients receiving therapy underwent intensive sampling (every 2-3 days) over 3 to 4 months to define the frequency, magnitude, and duration of blips and their association with drug levels and other clinical variables. Blips were defined as HIV-1 RNA measurements greater than or equal to 50 copies/mL preceded and followed by measurements less than 50 copies/mL without a change in treatment. To determine whether blips result from or lead to drug resistance, an ultrasensitive genotyping assay was used to detect drug resistance mutations before, during, and after blips. Patients were 10 HIV-1-infected asymptomatic adults recruited by clinicians and followed up in the Moore Clinic at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Patients had suppression of viremia to below 50 copies/mL while receiving a stable antiretroviral regimen for 6 months or longer.
Main outcome measures: At each time point, plasma HIV-1 RNA levels were measured in 2 independent laboratories and drug resistance mutations were analyzed by clonal sequencing.
Results: With the intensive sampling, blips were detected in 9 of 10 patients. Statistical analysis was consistent with random assay variation around a mean viral load below 50 copies/mL. Blips were not concordant on independent testing and had a short duration (median, <3 days) and low magnitude (median, 79 copies/mL). Blip frequency was not associated with demographic, clinical, or treatment variables. Blips did not occur in relation to illness, vaccination, or directly measured antiretroviral drug concentrations. Blips were marginally associated (P = .08) with reported episodes of nonadherence. Most importantly, in approximately 1000 independent clones sequenced for both protease and reverse transcriptase, no new resistance mutations were seen before, during, or shortly after blips.
Conclusion: Most blips in this population appear to represent random biological and statistical variation around mean HIV-1 levels below 50 copies/mL rather than clinically significant elevations in viremia.