HCV spread kinetics reveal varying contributions of transmission modes to infection dynamics

Karina Durso-Cain, Peter Kumberger, Yannik Schälte, Theresa Fink, Harel Dahari, Jan Hasenauer, Susan L. Uprichard, Frederik Graw


April 2021

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Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is capable of spreading within a host by two different transmission modes: cell-free and cell-to-cell. Although viral dissemination and diffusion of viral particles facilitates the infection of distant cells, direct cell-to-cell transmission to uninfected neighboring cells is thought to shield the virus from immune recognition. However, the contribution of each of these transmission mechanisms to HCV spread is unknown. To dissect the contribution of these different transmission modes to HCV spread, we measured HCV lifecycle kinetics and used an in vitro spread assay to monitor HCV spread kinetics after low multiplicity of infection in the absence and presence of a neutralizing antibody that blocks cell-free spread. By analyzing these data with a spatially-explicit mathematical model that describes viral spread on a single-cell level, we quantified the contribution of cell-free and cell-to-cell spread to the overall infection dynamics and show that both transmission modes act synergistically to enhance the spread of infection. Thus, the simultaneous occurrence of both transmission modes likely represents an advantage for HCV that may contribute to the efficient establishment of chronic infection. Notably, the relative contribution of each viral transmission mode appeared to vary dependent on different experimental conditions and suggests that viral spread is optimized according to the environment. Together, our analyses provide insight into the transmission dynamics of HCV and reveal how different transmission modes impact each other.


Hepatitis C Virus can spread within a host by diffusing viral particles or direct cell-to-cell transfer of viral material between infected and uninfected cells. To which extend these cell-free and cell-to-cell transmission modes contribute to HCV spread, establishment of chronicity and antiviral escape is still unknown. By combining in vitro experimental HCV spread data with a multi-scale mathematical model we have disentangled the contribution and interplay of cell-free and cell-to-cell transmission modes during HCV infection. Our analysis revealed synergistic effects between the two transmission modes, with the relative contribution of each transmission mode varying dependent on the experimental conditions. This highlights the adaptability of the virus and suggests that transmission modes might be optimized dependent on the environment, which could contribute to viral persistence.