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Experts Call For Guidelines On Use Of “HIV Fingerprinting” In Criminal Cases

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Published: Jun 8, 2011 3:48 pm
Experts Call For Guidelines On Use Of “HIV Fingerprinting” In Criminal Cases

In a letter to Nature, several experts in “HIV fingerprinting,” also called HIV phylogenetic analysis, have called for guidelines on how the technique should be used in criminal HIV investigations. According to the authors, scientific experts should make it clear to juries that the technique has limitations and cannot prove direct transmission of HIV from one person to another.

“We stress that there are limitations to what can be done, and that it is important that this type of analysis is done properly, and that the court is made aware of what can and cannot be inferred,” said Thomas Leitner, a scientist in HIV phylogenetics at Los Alamos National Laboratory and lead author of the letter, in correspondence with The AIDS Beacon.

Criminal transmission of HIV is the intentional or reckless infection of another person with HIV. In many states, people with HIV can be faced with prosecution if they have unprotected sex with a partner without disclosing their HIV status, even if that partner does not get HIV; if a partner does get infected, the HIV-positive person can be charged with criminal transmission.

HIV phylogenetic analysis, also called “HIV fingerprinting,” is a technique that examines small differences in HIV virus genes to determine how closely related two samples of HIV are. This technique has been used in several cases in the United States to compare HIV samples from victims and those accused as the sources of the transmitted HIV.

Phylogenetic analysis has been used as part of the overall evidence in several HIV criminal transmission trials in the United States, including a 2004 case in Washington and a 2009 case in Texas. In both cases the accused individuals were convicted.

Many experts have expressed concern over the use of HIV phylogenetics to prove HIV criminal transmission (see related AIDS Beacon news). In particular, they argue, phylogenetics can be used to disprove transmission but cannot be used to prove it.

In their letter, the authors have called for official guidelines for scientific experts who discuss phylogenetic analysis in court. In particular, they recommended that these guidelines address the appropriate versus inappropriate use of HIV phylogenetics.

The authors recommend that the guidelines include the following:

  • The scientist should not to argue for or against the guilt of the accused.
  • Phylogenetic investigators should deliver an expert opinion, impartially, on the viral transmission dynamics that can be deduced from their phylogenetic analyses.
  • Scientists must explain to the courts that phylogenetics cannot prove direct transmission. However, it can support the direction of viral transmission.
  • Phylogenetic analysis alone cannot exclude the possibility that HIV was transmitted from person A to person B through unknown intermediate partners who were not tested.

“We are not endorsing nor denouncing HIV trials; all we want is that if it occurs, then the HIV genetic analyses must be done properly,” said Leitner in explaining why guidelines are needed.

Prof. Annemie Vandamme, one of the coauthors on the letter, told The AIDS Beacon that she is currently working on a set of guidelines and that they will be finalized in the coming months.

For more information, please see the letter in Nature (abstract).

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