Herbeck JT, Mittler JE, Gottlieb GS, Mullins JI (2014). An HIV epidemic model based on viral load dynamics: value in assessing empirical trends in HIV virulence and community viral load. PLoS computational biology, 10(6), e1003673. (pubmed) (doi)
Trends in HIV virulence have been monitored since the start of the AIDS pandemic, as studying HIV virulence informs our understanding of HIV epidemiology and pathogenesis. Here, we model changes in HIV virulence as a strictly evolutionary process, using set point viral load (SPVL) as a proxy, to make inferences about empirical SPVL trends from longitudinal HIV cohorts. We develop an agent-based epidemic model based on HIV viral load dynamics. The model contains functions for viral load and transmission, SPVL and disease progression, viral load trajectories in multiple stages of infection, and the heritability of SPVL across transmissions. We find that HIV virulence evolves to an intermediate level that balances infectiousness with longer infected lifespans, resulting in an optimal SPVL∼4.75 log10 viral RNA copies/mL. Adaptive viral evolution may explain observed HIV virulence trends: our model produces SPVL trends with magnitudes that are broadly similar to empirical trends. With regard to variation among studies in empirical SPVL trends, results from our model suggest that variation may be explained by the specific epidemic context, e.g. the mean SPVL of the founding lineage or the age of the epidemic; or improvements in HIV screening and diagnosis that results in sampling biases. We also use our model to examine trends in community viral load, a population-level measure of HIV viral load that is thought to reflect a population’s overall transmission potential. We find that community viral load evolves in association with SPVL, in the absence of prevention programs such as antiretroviral therapy, and that the mean community viral load is not necessarily a strong predictor of HIV incidence.