Inferring the multiplicity of founder variants initiating HIV-1 infection: A systematic review and individual patient data meta-analysis


Background: HIV-1 infections initiated by multiple founder variants are characterised by a higher viral load and a worse clinical prognosis than those initiated with single founder variants, yet little is known about the routes of exposure through which transmission of multiple founder variants is most probable. Here we used individual patient data to calculate the probability of multiple founders stratified by route of HIV exposure and study methodology.

Methods: We conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of studies that estimated founder variant multiplicity in HIV-1 infection, searching MEDLINE, Embase, and Global Health databases for papers published between Jan 1, 1990, and Sept 14, 2020. Eligible studies must have reported original estimates of founder variant multiplicity in people with acute or early HIV-1 infections, have clearly detailed the methods used, and reported the route of exposure. Studies were excluded if they reported data concerning people living with HIV-1 who had known or suspected superinfection, who were documented as having received pre-exposure prophylaxis, or if the transmitting partner was known to be receiving antiretroviral treatment. Individual patient data were collated from all studies, with authors contacted if these data were not publicly available. We applied logistic meta-regression to these data to estimate the probability that an HIV infection is initiated by multiple founder variants. We calculated a pooled estimate using a random effects model, subsequently stratifying this estimate across exposure routes in a univariable analysis. We then extended our model to adjust for different study methods in a multivariable analysis, recalculating estimates across the exposure routes. This study is registered with PROSPERO, CRD42020202672.

Findings: We included 70 publications in our analysis, comprising 1657 individual patients. Our pooled estimate of the probability that an infection is initiated by multiple founder variants was 0·25 (95% CI 0·21-0·29), with moderate heterogeneity (Q=132·3, p<0·0001, I2=64·2%). Our multivariable analysis uncovered differences in the probability of multiple variant infection by exposure route. Relative to a baseline of male-to-female transmission, the predicted probability for female-to-male multiple variant transmission was significantly lower at 0·13 (95% CI 0·08–0·20), and the probabilities were significantly higher for transmissions in people who inject drugs (0·37 [0·24–0·53]) and men who have sex with men (0·30 [0·33–0·40]). There was no significant difference in the probability of multiple variant transmission between male-to-female transmission (0·21 [0·14–0·31]), post-partum transmission (0·18 [0·03–0·57]), pre-partum transmission (0·17 [0·08–0·33]), and intra-partum transmission (0·27 [0·14–0·45]).

Interpretation: We identified that transmissions in people who inject drugs and men who have sex with men are significantly more likely to result in an infection initiated by multiple founder variants, and female-to-male infections are significantly less probable. Quantifying how the routes of HIV infection affect the transmission of multiple variants allows us to better understand how the evolution and epidemiology of HIV-1 determine clinical outcomes.

Funding: Medical Research Council Precision Medicine Doctoral Training Programme and a European Research Council Starting Grant.


Baxter J, Langhorne S, Shi T, Tully DC, Villabona-Arenas CJ, HuAc S, Albert J, Leigh Brown A, Atkins KE




  • Epidemiology and Determinants of Health
    • Epidemiology
  • Population(s)
    • Men who have sex with men
    • People who use drugs
    • General HIV+ population


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