BackgroundHepatitis C (HCV) and many other RNA viruses exist as rapidly mutating quasi-species populations in a single infected host. High throughput characterization of full genome, within-host variants is still not possible despite advances in next generation sequencing. This limitation constrains viral genomic studies that depend on accurate identification of hemi-genome or whole genome, within-host variants, especially those occurring at low frequencies. With the advent of third generation long read sequencing technologies, including Oxford Nanopore Technology (ONT) and PacBio platforms, this problem is potentially surmountable. ONT is particularly attractive in this regard due to the portable nature of the MinION sequencer, which makes real-time sequencing in remote and resource-limited locations possible. However, this technology (termed here ‘nanopore sequencing’) has a comparatively high technical error rate. The present study aimed to assess the utility, accuracy and cost-effectiveness of nanopore sequencing for HCV genomes. We also introduce a new bioinformatics tool (Nano-Q) to differentiate within-host variants from nanopore sequencing.ResultsThe Nanopore platform, when the coverage exceeded 300 reads, generated comparable consensus sequences to Illumina sequencing. Using HCV Envelope plasmids (~ 1800 nt) mixed in known proportions, the capacity of nanopore sequencing to reliably identify variants with an abundance as low as 0.1% was demonstrated, provided the autologous reference sequence was available to identify the matching reads. Successful pooling and nanopore sequencing of 52 samples from patients with HCV infection demonstrated its cost effectiveness (AUD$ 43 per sample with nanopore sequencing versus $100 with paired-end short read technology). The Nano-Q tool successfully separated between-host sequences, including those from the same subtype, by bulk sorting and phylogenetic clustering without an autologous reference sequence (using only a subtype-specific generic reference). The pipeline also identified within-host viral variants and their abundance when the parameters were appropriately adjusted.ConclusionCost effective HCV whole genome sequencing and within-host variant identification without haplotype reconstruction are potential advantages of nanopore sequencing.