Prevalence and predictive value of intermittent viremia with combination hiv therapy

D V Havlir, R Bassett, D Levitan, P Gilbert, P Tebas, A C Collier, M S Hirsch, C Ignacio, J Condra, H F G√ľnthard, D D Richman, J K Wong
JAMA 2001 July 11, 286 (2): 171-9

CONTEXT: In HIV-infected patients having virologic suppression (plasma HIV RNA <50 copies/mL) with antiretroviral therapy, intermittent episodes of low-level viremia have been correlated with slower decay rates of latently infected cells and increased levels of viral evolution, but the clinical significance of these episodes is unknown.

OBJECTIVE: To determine if HIV-infected patients with intermittent viremia have a higher risk of virologic failure (confirmed HIV RNA >200 copies/mL).

DESIGN AND SETTING: Retrospective analysis of subjects in well-characterized cohorts, the AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG) 343 trial of induction-maintenance therapy (August 1997 to November 1998) and the Merck 035 trial (ongoing since March 1995).

PATIENTS: Two hundred forty-one ACTG 343 patients, of whom 101 received triple-drug therapy throughout the study, and a small group of 13 patients from Merck 035 having virologic suppression after 6 months of indinavir-zidovudine-lamivudine.

MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Association of intermittent viremia (plasma HIV RNA >50 copies/mL with a subsequent measure <50 copies/mL) with virologic failure (2 consecutive plasma HIV RNA measures >200 copies/mL) in both study groups; evidence of drug resistance in 7 patients from the small (n = 13) study group with long-term follow-up.

RESULTS: Intermittent viremia occurred in 96 (40%) of the 241 ACTG 343 patients of whom 32 (13%) had 2 consecutive HIV RNA values >50 copies/mL during the median 84 weeks of observation (median duration of observation after first intermittent viremia episode was 46 weeks). Of the 101 individuals receiving triple-drug therapy throughout, 29% had intermittent viremia; the proportion of episodes occurring during the maintenance period was 64% for the entire cohort and 68% for the group not receiving triple-drug therapy throughout vs 55% for those who did (P =.25). Intermittent viremia did not predict virologic failure: 10 (10.4%) of 96 patients with and 20 (13.8%) of 145 patients without intermittent viremia had virologic failure (relative risk, 0.76; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.29-1.72). In a Cox proportional hazards model, the risk for virologic failure was not significantly greater in the ACTG 343 patients with intermittent viremia (hazard ratio, 1.28; 95% CI, 0.59-2.79). Median viral load in 10 ACTG 343 patients assessed between 24 and 60 weeks of therapy using an ultrasensitive 2.5-copies/mL detection level assay was 23 copies/mL in those with intermittent viremia vs <2.5 copies/mL in those without (P =.15). Intermittent viremia occurred in 6 of 13 patients from the small study group assessed after 76 to 260 weeks of therapy (using the 2.5-copies/mL detection level assay) and was associated with a higher steady state of viral replication (P =.03), but not virologic failure over 4.5 years of observation. Viral DNA sequences from 7 patients did not show evolution of drug resistance.

CONCLUSIONS: Intermittent viremia occurred frequently and was associated with higher levels of replication (Merck 035), but was not associated with virologic failure in patients receiving initial combination therapy of indinavir-zidovudine-lamivudine (ACTG 343 and Merck 035). In this population, treatment changes may not be necessary to maintain long-term virologic suppression with low-level or intermittent viremia.

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