BACKGROUND: Screening of blood donors for viral nucleic acids has recently been introduced in several countries. With the use of transcription-mediated amplification, a blood donor was detected who had 90,000 copies of hepatitis B virus (HBV) DNA/mL but no hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) or antibody to hepatitis B core antigen (anti-HBc). One month later, anti-HBc and hepatitis B surface antibody (anti-HBs) appeared; HBV DNA disappeared after 2 months. This study asked why HBsAg was undetectable in this rare case of transient occult HBV infection.
STUDY DESIGN AND METHODS: The HBV DNA in the first sample was cloned and sequenced to identify mutations. The physical nature of the virus was examined by polyethylene glycol precipitation, DNase digestion, density gradient centrifugation, and immunoprecipitation.
RESULTS: Several mutations were found all over the genome, but the HBs antigen loop was unchanged. A stop mutation in the precore region led to loss of hepatitis B e antigen (HBeAg) expression. No HBV DNA–containing immune complexes were present. The plasma did not contain nonencapsidated HBV DNA that could explain the absence of HBsAg. The virus was immune precipitated by antibodies against HBsAg or preS1 antigen. The ratio of HBV to HBsAg subviral particles was estimated to be 1 in less than 20 whereas in overt cases the ratio is 1 in more than 1000.
CONCLUSION: The acute resolving occult HBV infection was caused by an HBeAg-negative variant, which otherwise was almost normal. The negative HBsAg result was probably due to an unusually low production of surplus HBsAg. The absence of the viral immunomodulator HBeAg and the early appearance of anti-HBs suggested a rapid noncytolytic HBsAg-specific T-cell response leading to low expression of HBsAg.