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Techniques and interpretation of HIV-1 RNA quantitation

Angela M Caliendo, MD, PhD
Section Editor
John G Bartlett, MD
Deputy Editor
Jennifer Mitty, MD, MPH


Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) RNA can be measured using qualitative or quantitative techniques. Qualitative testing (commonly referred to as nucleic acid testing or NAT) is used as a screening test to identify HIV-infected individuals, such as screening possible blood donors. Quantification of HIV-RNA (viral load measurements) can be used as a diagnostic test in certain situations; however, the HIV viral load is primarily used for management/monitoring of HIV-1-infected individuals.

This topic will address the laboratory methods for quantitation of HIV-1 RNA and the use of viral load for clinical management. Additional information on nucleic acid, HIV-2 RNA, and CD-4 cell count testing is found elsewhere. (See "Blood donor screening: Laboratory testing", section on 'HIV-1 and HIV-2' and "Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of HIV-2 infection", section on 'Testing for HIV-2 infection' and "Techniques and interpretation of measurement of the CD4 cell count in HIV-infected patients".)


Studies have found HIV-1 RNA levels to be a predictor of the time to progression to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) and death that is independent of CD4 cell counts [1-6]. (See "Factors affecting HIV progression", section on 'Laboratory markers of progression'.)

Viral load measurements are also an important factor in selecting and antiretroviral therapy regimen and monitoring the response to treatment [7]. The use of HIV-1 RNA measurements in clinical practice are discussed separately. (See "Selecting antiretroviral regimens for the treatment-naïve HIV-infected patient" and "Patient monitoring during HIV antiretroviral therapy".)

In specific situations (neonatal infection and acute infection), HIV-1 RNA levels also may be useful in establishing the diagnosis of HIV infection. However, in most other situations, combination tests that detect HIV p24 antigen and HIV antibodies are primarily used. (See "Screening and diagnostic testing for HIV infection" and "Diagnostic testing for HIV infection in infants and children younger than 18 months" and "Acute and early HIV infection: Clinical manifestations and diagnosis", section on 'Diagnostic test performance in early HIV infection'.)

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Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Aug 08, 2017.
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