HIV Viral Load Testing in the South African Public Health Setting in the Context of Evolving ART Guidelines and Advances in Technology, 2013 - 2022

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Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute

HIV viral load (VL) testing plays a key role in the clinical management of HIV as a marker of adherence and antiretroviral efficacy. To date, national and international antiretroviral treatment recommendations have evolved to endorse routine VL testing. South Africa (SA) has recommended routine VL testing since 2004. Progressively, the centralised HIV VL program managed by its National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) has undergone expansive growth. Retrospective de-identified VL data from 2013 to 2022 were evaluated to review program performance. Test volumes increased from 1,961,720 performed in 2013 to 45,334,864 in 2022. The median total in-laboratory turnaround time (TAT) ranged from 94 h (2015) to 51 h (2022). Implementation of two new assays improved median TATs in all laboratories. Samples of VL greater than 1000 copies/mL declined steadily. Despite initial increases, samples of fewer than 50 copies/mL stagnated at about 70% from 2019 and declined to 68% in 2022. Some variations between assays were observed. Overall, the SA VL program is successful. The scale of the VL program, the largest of its kind in the world by some margin, provides lessons for future public health programs dependent on laboratories for patient outcome and program performance monitoring.