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J Gen Virol. 2008 Feb;89(Pt 2):409-18. doi: 10.1099/vir.0.83347-0.

Molecular characterization of occult hepatitis B virus in genotype E-infected subjects.

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Division of Transfusion Medicine, Department of Haematology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.


Occult hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection (OBI), defined as the presence of HBV DNA without detectable HBV surface antigen (HBsAg), is frequent in west Africa, where genotype E is prevalent. The prevalence of OBI in 804 blood donors and 1368 pregnant women was 1.7 and 1.5%, respectively. Nine of 32 OBI carriers were evaluated with HBV serology, viral load and complete HBV genome sequence of two to five clones. All samples except one were anti-HBV core antigen-positive and three contained antibodies against HBsAg (anti-HBs). All strains were of genotype E and formed quasispecies with 0.20-1.28% intra-sample sequence variation. Few uncommon mutations (absent in 23 genotype E reference sequences) were found across the entire genome. Two mutations in the core region encoded truncated or abnormal capsid protein, potentially affecting viral production, but were probably rescued by non-mutated variants, as found in one clone. No evidence of escape mutants was found in anti-HBs-carrying samples, as the 'a' region was consistently wild type. OBI carriers constitute approximately 10% of all HBV DNA-viraemic adult Ghanaians. OBI carriers appear as a disparate group, with a very low viral load in common, but multiple origins reflecting decades of natural evolution in an area essentially devoid of human intervention.

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