Background: The relationship between the timing of the initiation of antiretroviral therapy (ART) after infection with human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) and the recovery of CD4+ T-cell counts is unknown.
Methods: In a prospective, observational cohort of persons with acute or early HIV-1 infection, we determined the trajectory of CD4+ counts over a 48-month period in partially overlapping study sets: study set 1 included 384 participants during the time window in which they were not receiving ART and study set 2 included 213 participants who received ART soon after study entry or sometime thereafter and had a suppressed plasma HIV viral load. We investigated the likelihood and rate of CD4+ T-cell recovery to 900 or more cells per cubic millimeter within 48 months while the participants were receiving viral-load-suppressive ART.
Results: Among the participants who were not receiving ART, CD4+ counts increased spontaneously, soon after HIV-1 infection, from the level at study entry (median, 495 cells per cubic millimeter; interquartile range, 383 to 622), reached a peak value (median, 763 cells per cubic millimeter; interquartile range, 573 to 987) within approximately 4 months after the estimated date of infection, and declined progressively thereafter. Recovery of CD4+ counts to 900 or more cells per cubic millimeter was seen in approximately 64% of the participants who initiated ART earlier (≤4 months after the estimated date of HIV infection) as compared with approximately 34% of participants who initiated ART later (>4 months) (P<0.001). After adjustment for whether ART was initiated when the CD4+ count was 500 or more cells per cubic millimeter or less than 500 cells per cubic millimeter, the likelihood that the count would increase to 900 or more cells per cubic millimeter was lower by 65% (odds ratio, 0.35), and the rate of recovery was slower by 56% (rate ratio, 0.44), if ART was initiated later rather than earlier. There was no association between the plasma HIV RNA level at the time of initiation of ART and CD4+ T-cell recovery.
Conclusions: A transient, spontaneous restoration of CD4+ T-cell counts occurs in the 4-month time window after HIV-1 infection. Initiation of ART during this period is associated with an enhanced likelihood of recovery of CD4+ counts. (Funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and others.).