Detection of common hepatitis C virus subtypes with a third-generation enzyme immunoassa



The causal agent of most posttransfusion non-A and non-B hepatitis infections was characterized in 1989 by molecular biological techniques as a positive-stranded, enveloped RNA virus, designated hepatitis C virus (HCV). Only since 1990 has it been possible to screen for an infection with antibody tests or direct amplification assays for the nucleic acid (i.e., reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction [PCR]). However, these nucleic acid based tests are time consuming and rather expensive. Recently, third-generation enzyme immunoassays (EIAs) for HCV infection were introduced (i.e., Abbott Laboratories, North Chicago, IL; Ortho Diagnostics, Inc., Raritan, NJ; and Roche Diagnostics, Basel, Switzerland). The Roche Diagnostics EIA has been evaluated with our patient population. To this end, 1,090 samples were assayed by both EIA and PCR; 946 of all samples (87%) were negative, and 107 samples (9.8%) were positive by both tests. Thirty of the patients (2.7%) showed antibodies but no detectable virus, whereas 7 of all patients tested (0.6%) were PCR-positive but had not yet developed antibodies to the virus. Of these 7 patients, only one showed normal serum transaminases. Virus strain subtyping and quantification of viral load on the positive samples in parallel have been performed, and the fact that the EIA detects all the virus subtypes found in our hospital can be inferred. No correlation between subtypes, viral load, and immune response could be measured with this antibody test. Our results indicate that, in most circumstances (except in settings where immunocompromised patients are abundant), this EIA can replace the much more expensive PCR tests for the routine screening for HCV infection.