Spotlight Center on HIV Prevention Today

Treatment Is Prevention: ARV Treatment in HPTN-052 Reduces Transmission by at Least 96%: Single Transmission in Treatment Arm Occurred Prior to Viral Suppression

July/August 2011

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Four of the six oral presentations in the "Treatment is prevention: the proof is here" session reported on the results from HPTN 052.1 This study had been unblinded four years earlier than planned due to a review by the data and safety monitoring board (DSMB), with all patients now being offered active treatment.

In summary, HIV-positive people on treatment had a 96% reduction in sexual transmission to their HIV-negative partners if they started ARVs with a CD4 count of 350-550 cells/mm3 compared to waiting until it dropped below 250 cells/mm3. As with all prevention studies, condoms, testing and intensive counselling was included throughout the study.

The main study results were presented by Myron Cohen from University of North Carolina.2


HPTN 052 screened over 10,000 couples in order to randomise 1763 HIV-positive people with CD4 counts 350-550 to either immediate or delayed HIV treatment (CD4 confirmed <250 or an AIDS-defining illness). Screening failure was mostly due to CD4 or other criteria in the positive partner, but 300 couples were already both HIV-positive. This was an international study predominantly recruiting in Africa (Botswana, Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe, n=954), Asia (India and Thailand, n=531) and Latin America (Brazil, n=276). Men and women were equally distributed as the positive partners. Median baseline CD4 count was 436 cells/mm3 (IQR 365-522) and viral load was approximately 25,000 copies/mL (IQR 6,000-80,000) respectively.

This was generally a low risk population with only 6-8% reporting recent unprotected sex and only 16% aged 18-25 years (~60% were 25-40 years and ~20% >40 years).

The primary transmission endpoint was the prevention of virologically linked transmissions with a primary clinical endpoint of WHO Stage 4 events (including pulmonary TB, severe bacterial infections and death).

Transmission events (n=39) occurred significantly less frequently in the immediate (n=4) compared to the deferred (n=35) treatment arms, p<0.0001. Of these, only 28/39 were linked transmissions (within the couple) with 1 case in the immediate arm vs 27 cases in the deferred arm, p=0.001 (see below for details). Eleven transmissions were either unlinked or undetermined. This translated to incidence rates of linked transmission of 0.1 (95%CI 0.00-0.04) vs 1.7 (95%CI 1.1-2.5) per 100 person years respectively over a median follow-up of 1.7 years.

The single transmission in the immediate treatment arm was detected at the first follow-up visit. However viral diversification analysis estimated that transmission occurred prior to the positive partner initiating treatment (baseline 87,000 viral load) or certainly prior to viral suppression to <400 copies/mL which was recorded at day 28.

Other transmission risk factors were similar between arms, including rates of STIs (low at <5% in both index and partner at baseline and during the study), sexual activity (approximately 70%) and condom use (>90% by all throughout).

Viral suppression (<400 copies/mL) was maintained by >90% of participants in the immediate arm. There was a slow increase in this percentage over time in the deferred arm as people started treatment (from <10% over the first year, 20% by month 24 and increasing to 50% at month 45, though with much fewer patients). The median viral load closest to the time of transmission in the deferred arm was considerable at 80,000 copies/mL but had a wide range from 600 to 630,000 copies/mL.

In multivariate analysis, treatment was the strongest protective effect [HR=0.04, 95%CI 0.01-0.28] compared to condom use [HR=0.33; 95%CI 0.12-0.91]. Factors associated with increased transmission included baseline viral load [per log increment: HR 2.84, 95%CI 1.51-5.41] and baseline CD4 count [per 100 count increment: HR 1.24 95%CI 1.00-1.54].

Table 1: Key Demographics and Results From HPTN 052
  Immediate (n=886) Deferred (n=877)  
Baseline CD4 med (IQR) 442




Baseline viral load med (IQR) 4.4




Age (index partner) 33 32  
Married 94% 95%  
Any unprotected sex 6% 8%  
Linked transmissions (n) 1 27 HR 0.04 (95%CI 0.01-0.28)
WHO Stage IV events, pulmonary tuberculosis, severe bacterial infection or death (n=pts) 40

(2.4 per 100 PY)


(4.0 per 100PY)

HR 0.59, 95%CI: (0.40, 0.88), p=0.01
TB (n=events) 17 33
Extrapulmonary tuberculosis (n) 3 17 p<0.002
Deaths 10 13 HR 0.77, 95% CI: (0.34, 1.76), p>0.5
Adverse events 24% 5%

The second presentation by Susan Eshelman from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine focused on the analysis of linked transmission.3 This included a helpful introduction to the three types of phylogenetic analyses used: phylogenetic analysis of HIV pol sequences using population sequencing, and statistical analysis of genetic distances from pol sequence pairs for the clearest cases (n=26), and phylogenetic analysis of env sequences obtained by deep sequencing for more complex cases (n=12). Together these provided a high level of reliability for indentifying whether the source of new infections was the HIV-positive partner or whether this was from another partner.

Transmissions in previous serodifferent couple studies have been from outside the main relationship in 25-50% cases.

The deep sequencing ("ultradeep pyrosequencing") supported linked two further cases and confirmed non-linkage for seven others (4 in the immediate and 3 in the deferred arm). Three cases remained unidentified (all in the deferred arm). Transmission linkage was not associated with index partner gender or CD4 count, geographical regions or time on study but this was strongly associated with study group and number of sexual partners in the three months prior to new seroconversions.

Results on the clinical outcomes for the HIV-positive participants in HPTN 052 were presented by Mina Hosseinipour from the UNC Project, Malawi.4

Results comparing the two groups were presented as ITT analyses and included the approximate 20% (184/877) people randomised to the deferred arm who started treatment during follow-up.

Over two years, median CD4 counts increased from 442 to 662 cells/mm3 in the immediate group compared to reducing from 428 to 390 cells/mm3 in the deferred arm. These differences are blunted as the deferred arm includes the response for the 20% people who started treatment. Viral suppression was achieved and maintained <400 copies/mL by >90% of the immediate arm. Less than 5% of patients on immediate treatment experienced virological failure during follow-up with most (60%) of these switching to a second-line combination.

The decision to start treatment in the deferred arm was driven by CD4 declines in 75% of cases. This occurred at a median count of 225 cells/mm3 (IQR 199-247), with 25% over people not starting until their CD4 count was less than 200. Treatment in both arms was predominantly AZT/3TC/efavirenz (70%) with ~10% using AZT/3TC/atazanavir, and ~10% using tenofovir/3TC/efavirenz. CD4 responses in the deferred arm were similar to absolute increase in the immediate treatment arm but remained significantly lower at all timepoints, reflecting the lower counts when starting treatment. Although there are fewer patients with longer duration of follow-up in the deferred arm, other studies have reported that baseline CD4 correlates with CD4 response after treatment.

The analysis by geographical region reported that about 80% of both the linked and unlinked transmission events occurred in African sites, likely a reflection of the higher background population prevalence rates in those countries, although the researchers highlighted higher rates of unprotected sex in the last week (by 9% vs 4% of African vs non-African) and higher sexual activity (>3 acts). However, baseline CD4 count, viral load and adjusted time to initiation, median adherence (99%) and treatment responses were similar between African and Asian sites.

Further details on clinical outcomes were presented by Beatriz Grinsztejn from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Rio de Janeiro.5

Primary clinical events occurred at least once in 105 participants over 3304 person-years (PY) of follow-up; 40 in the immediate arm (2.4/100PY) and 65 in the delayed arm (4.0/100PY), hazard ratio (HR) 0.59, 95% CI: (0.40, 0.88), p=0.01. Seventeen people experienced more than one event. Time to event was significantly shorter in the deferred arm (HR 0.6, 95%CI 0.4, 0.9, p=0.01)

CD4 counts were significantly higher in the immediate arm vs deferred arms for all clinical endpoints (TB 518 vs 316; bacterial infection (mainly pneumonia) 551 vs 337 and death 476 vs 372 cells/mm3 respectively).

The between-arm difference was driven by extrapulmonary tuberculosis with 3 cases in the immediate versus 17 cases in deferred arms (p<0.002). These were peripheral lymph nodes (2 vs 4), abdominal (0 vs 8), pleural (1 vs 3), skeletal (0 vs 1) and meningeal (0 vs 1). Isoniazid prophylaxis was only being used by 4% of patients in each arm at baseline.

Of the 23 deaths observed, there was no difference between arms: 10 in the immediate arm and 13 in the delayed arm [HR 0.77, 95% CI: (0.34, 1.76), NS p>0.5]. Causes of death were similar, but with 3 vs 3 suicides; 0 vs 2 accidents; and 3 vs 6 unknown).

Adverse events potentially related to ART were reported in 24% of subjects in the immediate arm and 5% in the delayed arm, but severe or life-threatening events occurred equally in 14% of each group and grade 4 lab events were also similar (in <1-2% of participants).

Since the DSMB recommendation in April 2011, all participants in the deferred arm have been offered HAART based on the strength of the study findings. This study continues to monitor all participants and results will add to clinical data from use of earlier vs later treatment in people with CD4 counts >350 cells/mm3.

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This article was provided by HIV i-Base. It is a part of the publication HIV Treatment Bulletin. Visit HIV i-Base's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.

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