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Preprint in English | medRxiv | ID: ppmedrxiv-21258689


We present evidence for multiple independent origins of recombinant SARS-CoV-2 viruses sampled from late 2020 and early 2021 in the United Kingdom. Their genomes carry single nucleotide polymorphisms and deletions that are characteristic of the B.1.1.7 variant of concern, but lack the full complement of lineage-defining mutations. Instead, the remainder of their genomes share contiguous genetic variation with non-B.1.1.7 viruses circulating in the same geographic area at the same time as the recombinants. In four instances there was evidence for onward transmission of a recombinant-origin virus, including one transmission cluster of 45 sequenced cases over the course of two months. The inferred genomic locations of recombination breakpoints suggest that every community-transmitted recombinant virus inherited its spike region from a B.1.1.7 parental virus, consistent with a transmission advantage for B.1.1.7s set of mutations.

Preprint in English | medRxiv | ID: ppmedrxiv-20248677


The second SARS virus, SARS-CoV-2, emerged in December 2019, and within a month was globally distributed. It was first introduced into Scotland in February 2020 associated with returning travellers and visitors. By March it was circulating in communities across the UK, and to control COVID-19 cases, and prevent overwhelming of the National Health Service (NHS), a lockdown was introduced on 23rd March 2020 with a restriction of peoples movements. To augment the public health efforts a large-scale genome epidemiology effort (as part of the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium) resulted in the sequencing of over 5000 SARS-CoV-2 genomes by 18th August 2020 from Scottish cases, about a quarter of the estimated number of cases at that time. Here we quantify the geographical origins of the first wave introductions into Scotland from abroad and other UK regions, the spread of these SARS-CoV-2 lineages to different regions within Scotland (defined at the level of NHS Health Board) and the effect of lockdown on virus success. We estimate that approximately 300 introductions seeded lineages in Scotland, with around 25% of these lineages composed of more than five viruses, but by June circulating lineages were reduced to low levels, in line with low numbers of recorded positive cases. Lockdown was, thus, associated with a dramatic reduction in infection numbers and the extinguishing of most virus lineages. Unfortunately since the summer cases have been rising in Scotland in a second wave, with >1000 people testing positive on a daily basis, and hospitalisation of COVID-19 cases on the rise again. Examining the available Scottish genome data from the second wave, and comparing it to the first wave, we find that while some UK lineages have persisted through the summer, the majority of lineages responsible for the second wave are new introductions from outside of Scotland and many from outside of the UK. This indicates that, while lockdown in Scotland is directly linked with the first wave case numbers being brought under control, travel-associated imports (mostly from Europe or other parts of the UK) following the easing of lockdown are responsible for seeding the current epidemic population. This demonstrates that the impact of stringent public health measures can be compromised if following this, movements from regions of high to low prevalence are not minimised.

Preprint in English | bioRxiv | ID: ppbiorxiv-355842


SARS-CoV-2 can mutate to evade immunity, with consequences for the efficacy of emerging vaccines and antibody therapeutics. Herein we demonstrate that the immunodominant SARS-CoV-2 spike (S) receptor binding motif (RBM) is the most divergent region of S, and provide epidemiological, clinical, and molecular characterization of a prevalent RBM variant, N439K. We demonstrate that N439K S protein has enhanced binding affinity to the hACE2 receptor, and that N439K virus has similar clinical outcomes and in vitro replication fitness as compared to wild- type. We observed that the N439K mutation resulted in immune escape from a panel of neutralizing monoclonal antibodies, including one in clinical trials, as well as from polyclonal sera from a sizeable fraction of persons recovered from infection. Immune evasion mutations that maintain virulence and fitness such as N439K can emerge within SARS-CoV-2 S, highlighting the need for ongoing molecular surveillance to guide development and usage of vaccines and therapeutics.

Preprint in English | medRxiv | ID: ppmedrxiv-20166082


Global dispersal and increasing frequency of the SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein variant D614G are suggestive of a selective advantage but may also be due to a random founder effect. We investigate the hypothesis for positive selection of Spike D614G in the United Kingdom using more than 25,000 whole genome SARS-CoV-2 sequences. Despite the availability of a large data set, well represented by both Spike 614 variants, not all approaches showed a conclusive signal of positive selection. Population genetic analysis indicates that 614G increases in frequency relative to 614D in a manner consistent with a selective advantage. We do not find any indication that patients infected with the Spike 614G variant have higher COVID-19 mortality or clinical severity, but 614G is associated with higher viral load and younger age of patients. Significant differences in growth and size of 614G phylogenetic clusters indicate a need for continued study of this variant.