Occult hepatitis B virus infection: a covert operation

J Viral Hepat. 2010 Jan;17(1):1-15. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2893.2009.01245.x. Epub 2009 Dec 9.


Detection of occult hepatitis B requires assays of the highest sensitivity and specificity with a lower limit of detection of less than 10 IU/mL for hepatitis B virus (HBV) DNA and <0.1 ng/mL for hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg). This covert condition is relatively common in patients with chronic hepatitis C virus (HCV) that seems to exert some influence on the replicative capacity and latency of HBV. Detection of virus-specific nucleic acid does not always translate into infectivity, and the occurrence of primer-generated HBV DNA that is of partial genomic length in immunocompetent individuals who have significant levels of hepatitis B surface antibody (anti-HBs) may not be biologically relevant. Acute flares of alanine aminotransferase (ALT) that occur during the early phase of therapy for HCV or ALT levels that remain elevated at the end of therapy in biochemical nonresponders should prompt an assessment for occult hepatitis B. Similarly, the plasma from patients with chronic hepatitis C that is hepatitis B core antibody (anti-HBc) positive (+/-anti-HBs at levels of <100 mIU/mL) should be examined for HBV DNA with the most sensitive assay available. If a liver biopsy is available, immunostaining for hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) and hepatitis B core antigen (HBcAg) should be contemplated and a portion of the sample tested for HBV DNA. This is another reason for optimal collection of a specimen (e.g. two passes with a 16-guage needle under ultrasound guidance). Transmission of HBV to immunosuppressed orthotopic liver transplant recipients by donors with occult hepatitis B (OHB) will continue to occupy the interests of the transplant hepatologist. As patients with OHB may have detectable HBV DNA in serum, peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) and/or liver that can be reactivated following immunosuppression or intensive cytotoxic chemotherapy, the patient needs to be either monitored or treated depending on the pretreatment serological results such as an isolated anti-HBc reaction or a detectable HBV DNA.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alanine Transaminase / blood
  • DNA, Viral / blood
  • Hepatitis B / diagnosis*
  • Hepatitis B / epidemiology*
  • Hepatitis B / pathology
  • Hepatitis B / virology
  • Hepatitis B Surface Antigens / blood
  • Hepatitis B virus / isolation & purification*
  • Hepatitis C, Chronic / complications
  • Humans


  • DNA, Viral
  • Hepatitis B Surface Antigens
  • Alanine Transaminase