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Natural selection favoring more transmissible HIV detected in United States molecular transmission network


HIV molecular epidemiology can identify clusters of individuals with elevated rates of HIV transmission. These variable transmission rates are primarily driven by host risk behavior; however, the effect of viral traits on variable transmission rates is poorly understood. Viral load, the concentration of HIV in blood, is a heritable viral trait that influences HIV infectiousness and disease progression. Here, we reconstruct HIV genetic transmission clusters using data from the United States National HIV Surveillance System and report that viruses in clusters, inferred to be frequently transmitted, have higher viral loads at diagnosis. Further, viral load is higher in people in larger clusters and with increased network connectivity, suggesting that HIV in the United States is experiencing natural selection to be more infectious and virulent. We also observe a concurrent increase in viral load at diagnosis over the last decade. This evolutionary trajectory may be slowed by prevention strategies prioritized toward rapidly growing transmission clusters.

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