Background: Transmission of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) drug resistance mutations, particularly that of minority drug-resistant variants, remains poorly understood. Population-based studies suggest that drug-resistant HIV-1 is less transmissible than drug-susceptible viruses. We compared HIV-1 drug-resistant genotypes among partner-pairs in order to assess the likelihood of transmission of drug resistance mutations and investigate the role of minority variants in HIV transmission.
Methods and findings: From 1992-2010, 340 persons with primary HIV-1 infection and their partners were enrolled into observational research studies at the University of Washington Primary Infection Clinic (UWPIC). Out of 50 partner-pairs enrolled, 36 (72%) transmission relationships were confirmed by phylogenetic distance analysis of HIV-1 envelope (env) sequences, and 31 partner-pairs enrolled after 1995 met criteria for this study. Drug resistance mutations in the region of the HIV-1 polymerase gene (pol) that encodes protease and reverse transcriptase were assessed by 454-pyrosequencing. In 25 partner-pairs where the transmission direction could be determined, 12 (48%) transmitters had 1-4 drug resistance mutations (23 total) detected in their HIV-1 populations at a median frequency of 6.0% (IQR 1.5%-98.7%, range 1.0%-99.6%). Of 10 major mutations detected in five transmitters at a frequency >95%, 100% (95% CI 69.2%-100%) were detected in recipients. All of these transmitters were antiretroviral (ARV)-naïve at the time of specimen collection. Fourteen mutations (eight major mutations and six accessory mutations) were detected in nine transmitters at low frequencies (1.0%-11.8%); four of these transmitters had previously received ARV therapy. Two (14% [95% CI 1.8%-42.8%]) G73S accessory mutations were detected in both transmitter and recipient. This number is not significantly different from the number expected based on the observed frequencies of drug-resistant viruses in transmitting partners. Limitations of this study include the small sample size and uncertainties in determining the timing of virus transmission and mutation history.
Conclusions: Drug-resistant majority variants appeared to be commonly transmitted by ARV-naïve participants in our analysis and may contribute significantly to transmitted drug resistance on a population level. When present at low frequency, no major mutation was observed to be shared between partner-pairs; identification of accessory mutations shared within a pair could be due to transmission, laboratory artifact, or apolipoprotein B mRNA-editing enzyme, catalytic polypeptides (APOBECs), and warrants further study.