BACKGROUND: It is important to characterize viral dynamics in early hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection to further our understanding of viral pathogenesis and the potential for secondary transmission in acute infection through blood transfusion or other routes.
STUDY DESIGN AND METHODS: Serial units given by 77 source plasma donors who had evolved from HCV RNA–negative to HCV RNA–positive by nucleic acid amplification technology (NAT) screening with 512-unit pool-NAT or were followed from RNA detection to antibody conversion were tested by individual NAT and quantitative RNA assays.
RESULTS: During the ramp-up phase when exponential growth occurs, HCV viral load doubled every 10.8 hours (95% confidence interval [CI], 9.9-12.0). Intermittent viremia was observed before the ramp-up phase in 37 of 50 panels with the earliest detectable viremic bleed occurring 63 days before the estimated onset of ramp-up. The plateau phase or high-titer viremic period that occurs between ramp-up and seroconversion was estimated to last 56.3 days (95% CI, 44.8-67.8).
CONCLUSIONS: Intermittent low-level HCV viremia can occur as much as 2 months before the periods of exponential increase in viral load and the high-titer plateau-phase viremia that usually precede seroconversion. Animal inoculation studies are in progress to evaluate if transfusion of low-level viremic plasma can transmit HCV infection.