Successful hepatitis C virus (HCV) treatment is defined as the absence of viremia 6 months after therapy cessation. We previously reported that trace amounts of HCV RNA, below the sensitivity of the standard clinical assay, can reappear sporadically in treatment responders. Here, we assessed the infectivity of this RNA and infused 3 chimpanzees sequentially at 9-week intervals with plasma or PBMCs from patients who tested positive for trace amounts of HCV RNA more than 6 months after completing pegylated IFN-α/ribavirin therapy. A fourth chimpanzee received HCV RNA–negative plasma and PBMCs from healthy blood donors. The 3 experimental chimpanzees, but not the control chimpanzee, generated HCV-specific T cell responses against nonstructural and structural HCV sequences 6–10 weeks after the first infusion of patient plasma and during subsequent infusions. In 1 chimpanzee, T cell responses declined, and this animal developed high-level viremia at week 27. Deep sequencing of HCV demonstrated transmission of a minor HCV variant from the first infusion donor that persisted in the chimpanzee for more than 6 months despite undetectable systemic viremia. Collectively, these results demonstrate that trace amounts of HCV RNA, which appear sporadically in successfully treated patients, can be infectious; furthermore, transmission can be masked in the recipient by an extended eclipse phase prior to establishing high-level viremia.
Naga Suresh Veerapu, Su-Hyung Park, Damien C. Tully, Todd M. Allen, Barbara Rehermann