Characterization of two hepatitis B virus populations isolated from a hepatitis B surface antigen–negative patient



In a study of surface antigen-negative, but weakly hepatitis B virus (HBV) DNA-positive, patients, we were able to amplify and clone whole HBV genomes from the serum of a cirrhotic patient. Sequencing showed that the patient harbored two different HBV populations, one of genotype A and the other of genotype D, with the genotype D genome apparently predominating. The surface antigen of the genotype A virus is heavily mutated, especially in the extracellular ≪ determinant a ≫ region, with several mutations that have not been previously described. The genotype D virus is a precore mutant. Both genomes possess the common A1762T-G1764A double mutation of the basal core promoter (BCP), and the genotype D virus is also mutated in the ≪ TATA box ≫ of the large surface antigen promoter. Biological characterization showed that the genotype A genome was fully replication-competent, whereas the genotype D genome replicated poorly. The small surface antigen of the genotype A virus was only very weakly recognized by commercial tests. The small surface antigen of the genotype D virus could be recognized by the tests, but it was mainly retained within transfected cells, probably because of an excess of large surface antigen. In conclusion, the cryptic nature of this double HBV infection is characterized by the predominance of the replication-deficient genotype D virus over the replication-competent genotype A virus.