A genetic analysis of hepatitis C virus (HCV) in rare blood donors who remained HCV seronegative despite long-term high-level viremia revealed the chronic presence of HCV genomes with large in frame deletions in their structural genes. Full-length HCV genomes were only detected as minority variants. In one immunodeficiency virus (HIV) co-infected donor the truncated HCV genome transiently decreased in frequency concomitant with delayed seroconversion and re-emerged following partial seroreversion. The long-term production of heavily truncated HCV genomes in vivo suggests that these viruses retained the necessary elements for RNA replication while the deleted structural functions necessary for their spread in vivo was provided in trans by wild-type helper virus in co-infected cells. The absence of immunological pressure and a high viral load may therefore promote the emergence of truncated HCV subgenomic replicons in vivo.
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