• hepatitis B virus;
  • HBV genotypes;
  • genetic diversity;
  • HBV variants


Hepatitis B virus (HBV) is a human DNA virus, which replicates through an RNA intermediate because of the reverse-transcriptase (RT) activity of its DNA polymerase. As a result, the mutation rate for HBV is higher than the rate observed for most DNA viruses. HBVs are classified into genotypes based on genomic sequencing, and antigenic subtypes based on the antigenic properties of its major surface glycoprotein, the HBV surface antigen (HBsAg). Subgenotypes have been identified within most of the HBV genotypes. The HBV groups defined by the different genotype-HBsAg subtype associations found over the world display characteristic geographical distributions, reflecting the movements of human populations and other epidemiologically significant events. Such HBV groups constitute genetically stable viral populations sharing a common evolutionary history, but additional stable changes, originating from mutation and mutant selection, are observed within all of them. These viral sub-populations are known as the HBV variants, and some of which have medical and public health relevance. Pre-core (pre-C) defective variants have been shown to make HBV infection much less susceptible to interferon treatment, and treatment failures with other antiviral drugs have been associated with selection of resistant variants that display specific mutations in the genome region encoding the viral RT activity. Since the RT region of the genome overlaps the sequence encoding the HBsAg molecule, selection of drug resistant variants involves, in some cases, the indirect selection of HBsAg variants. Viral variants displaying changes in HBsAg seem to be very common among chronic HBV carriers; and some of these variants may emerge under the pressure of the neutralizing antibody response, leading to vaccine resistance and resistance to immunotherapy. Mutations conferring resistance to immunotherapy are noted often among liver transplant recipients and among babies born to HBV-carrier mothers. In addition, some of these HBsAg variants have been associated with lack of detection by HBsAg tests used for the diagnosis of HBV infection, for the identification of chronic carriers, for screening of blood donations for transfusion, and in the manufacture of therapeutic blood products. J. Med. Virol. 78:S36–S42, 2006. © 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.