BACKGROUND: Phylogenetic analysis - the study of the genetic relatedness between HIV strains - has recently been used in criminal prosecutions as evidence of responsibility for HIV transmission. In these trials, the expert opinion of virologists has been of critical importance.
PITFALLS: Phylogenetic analysis of HIV gene sequences is complex and its findings do not achieve the levels of certainty obtained with the forensic analysis of human DNA. Although two individuals may carry HIV strains that are closely related, these will not necessarily be unique to the two parties and could extend to other persons within the same transmission network.
ACCEPTABLE STANDARDS: For forensic purposes, phylogenetic analysis should be conducted under strictly controlled conditions by laboratories with relevant expertise applying rigorous methods. It is vitally important to include the right controls, which should be epidemiologically and temporally relevant to the parties under investigation. Use of inappropriate controls can exaggerate any relatedness between the virus strains of the complainant and defendant as being strikingly unique. It will be often difficult to obtain the relevant controls. If convenient but less appropriate controls are used, interpretation of the findings should be tempered accordingly.
CONCLUSIONS: Phylogenetic analysis cannot prove that HIV transmission occurred directly between two individuals. However, it can exonerate individuals by demonstrating that the defendant carries a virus strain unrelated to that of the complainant. Expert witnesses should acknowledge the limitations of the inferences that might be made and choose the correct language in both written and verbal testimony.
- expert testimony
- forensic medicine
- genome, viral
- HIV infections