Understanding features of the HIV-1 transmission process has the potential to inform biological interventions for prevention. We have examined the transmitted virus in a cohort of people who inject drugs and who are at risk of HIV-1 infection through blood contamination when injecting in a group. This study focused on seven newly infected participants in St. Petersburg, Russia, who were in acute or early infection. We used end-point dilution polymerase chain reaction to amplify single viral genomes to assess the complexity of the transmitted virus. We also used deep sequencing to further assess the complexity of the virus. We interpret the results as indicating that a single viral variant was transmitted in each case, consistent with a model where the exposure to virus during transmission was limited. We also looked at phenotypic properties of the viral Env protein in isolates from acute and chronic infection. Although differences were noted, there was no consistent pattern that distinguished the transmitted variants. Similarly, despite the reduced genetic heterogeneity of the more recent subtype A HIV-1 epidemic in St. Petersburg, we did not see reduced variance in the neutralization properties compared to isolates from the more mature subtype C HIV-1 epidemic. Finally, in looking at members of injecting groups related to the acute HIV-1 infection/early subjects, we found examples of sequence linkage consistent with ongoing and rapid spread of HIV-1 in these groups. These studies emphasize the dynamic nature of this epidemic and reinforce the idea that improved prevention methods are needed.
Keywords: HIV envelope; HIV in Russia; HIV transmission; acute HIV infection; genetic bottleneck; people who use drugs.