Implementation of antiretroviral treatment (ART) guidelines, which emphasize maximal and durable suppression of viral load for the majority of individuals infected with HIV, has resulted in a substantial decline in morbidity and mortality. However, many asymptomatic patients are not at immediate risk of serious opportunistic diseases, the effectiveness of ART wanes over time due to HIV drug resistance, and there are short- and long-term toxicities of treatment. This motivates a comparison of two strategies: one which conserves treatments by deferring their use while the risk of opportunistic disease is low and one which aims for sustained virologic suppression, irrespective of disease risk.
In this large, long-term trial, patients will be randomly assigned to either the drug conservation (DC) or viral suppression (VS) group. Patients will be enrolled over a 3-year period and followed for an average of 7.5 years. The DC group will stop or defer ART until CD4 cell count declines to below 250 cells/mm3; they will then receive treatment to increase CD4 count to greater than 350 cells/mm3 followed by episodic ART based on CD4 cell count. The VS group will use ART to maintain viral load as low as possible, irrespective of CD4 cell count. Patients will be seen Months 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12, then every 4 months for data collection visits. All available ARTs, including immunomodulators, and resistance testing may be used by patients in both treatment groups. Selected subsamples of patients enrolled in the study will be followed with more intensive data collection for secondary outcomes relating to cost and health care utilization, quality of life, HIV transmission risk behaviors, and metabolic complications of treatment.