Unexpected rise in the circulation of complex HBV variants enriched of HBsAg vaccine-escape mutations in HBV genotype-D: potential impact on HBsAg detection/quantification and vaccination strategies

Emerg Microbes Infect. 2023 Dec;12(1):2219347. doi: 10.1080/22221751.2023.2219347.


Specific HBsAg mutations are known to hamper HBsAg recognition by neutralizing antibodies thus challenging HBV-vaccination efficacy. Nevertheless, information on their impact and spreading over time is limited. Here, we characterize the circulation of vaccine-escape mutations from 2005 to 2019 and their correlation with virological parameters in a large cohort of patients infected with HBV genotype-D (N = 947), dominant in Europe. Overall, 17.7% of patients harbours ≥1 vaccine-escape mutation with the highest prevalence in subgenotype-D3. Notably, complex profiles (characterized by ≥2 vaccine-escape mutations) are revealed in 3.1% of patients with a prevalence rising from 0.4% in 2005-2009 to 3.0% in 2010-2014 and 5.1% in 2015-2019 (P = 0.007) (OR[95%CI]:11.04[1.42-85.58], P = 0.02, by multivariable-analysis). The presence of complex profiles correlates with lower HBsAg-levels (median[IQR]:40[0-2905]IU/mL for complex profiles vs 2078[115-6037]IU/ml and 1881[410-7622]IU/mL for single or no vaccine-escape mutation [P < 0.02]). Even more, the presence of complex profiles correlates with HBsAg-negativity despite HBV-DNA positivity (HBsAg-negativity in 34.8% with ≥2 vaccine-escape mutations vs 6.7% and 2.3% with a single or no vaccine-escape mutation, P < 0.007). These in-vivo findings are in keeping with our in-vitro results showing the ability of these mutations in hampering HBsAg secretion or HBsAg recognition by diagnostic antibodies. In conclusion, vaccine-escape mutations, single or in complex profiles, circulate in a not negligible fraction of HBV genotype-D infected patients with an increasing temporal trend, suggesting a progressive enrichment in the circulation of variants able to evade humoral responses. This should be considered for a proper clinical interpretation of HBsAg-results and for the development of novel vaccine formulations for prophylactic and therapeutic purposes.

Keywords: HBV; HBsAg; HBsAg antigenicity; HBsAg secretion; vaccine-escape mutations.

MeSH terms

  • DNA, Viral / genetics
  • Genotype
  • Hepatitis B Surface Antigens* / genetics
  • Hepatitis B Vaccines
  • Hepatitis B virus*
  • Humans
  • Mutation
  • Vaccination


  • Hepatitis B Surface Antigens
  • Hepatitis B Vaccines
  • DNA, Viral