Direct-acting antivirals (DAAs) targeting NS5A are broadly effective against hepatitis C virus (HCV) infections, but sustained virological response rates are generally lower in patients infected with genotype (gt)-1a than gt-1b viruses. The explanation for this remains uncertain. Here, we adopted a highly accurate, ultra-deep primer ID sequencing approach to intensively study serial changes in the NS5A-coding region of HCV in gt-1a- and gt-1b-infected subjects receiving a short course of monotherapy with the NS5A inhibitor, elbasvir. Low or undetectable levels of viremia precluded on-treatment analysis in gt-1b-infected subjects, but variants with the resistance-associated substitution (RAS) Y93H in NS5A dominated rebounding virus populations following cessation of treatment. These variants persisted until the end of the study, two months later. In contrast, while Y93H emerged in multiple lineages and became dominant in subjects with gt-1a virus, these haplotypes rapidly decreased in frequency off therapy. Substitutions at Q30 and L31 emerged in distinctly independent lineages at later time points, ultimately coming to dominate the virus population off therapy. Consistent with this, cell culture studies with gt-1a and gt-1b reporter viruses and replicons demonstrated that Y93H confers a much greater loss of replicative fitness in gt-1a than gt-1b virus, and that L31M/V both compensates for the loss of fitness associated with Q30R (but not Y93H) and also boosts drug resistance. These observations show how differences in the impact of RASs on drug resistance and replicative fitness influence the evolution of gt-1a and gt-1b viruses during monotherapy with an antiviral targeting NS5A.
Keywords: Primer ID sequencing; Reporter virus; Resistance-associated substitution; Treatment outcome; Viral evolution.
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