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Nature Reviews. Microbiology. ; 18:18, 2023.
Article in English | MEDLINE | ID: covidwho-2185916


In late 2020, after circulating for almost a year in the human population, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) exhibited a major step change in its adaptation to humans. These highly mutated forms of SARS-CoV-2 had enhanced rates of transmission relative to previous variants and were termed 'variants of concern' (VOCs). Designated Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Omicron, the VOCs emerged independently from one another, and in turn each rapidly became dominant, regionally or globally, outcompeting previous variants. The success of each VOC relative to the previously dominant variant was enabled by altered intrinsic functional properties of the virus and, to various degrees, changes to virus antigenicity conferring the ability to evade a primed immune response. The increased virus fitness associated with VOCs is the result of a complex interplay of virus biology in the context of changing human immunity due to both vaccination and prior infection. In this Review, we summarize the literature on the relative transmissibility and antigenicity of SARS-CoV-2 variants, the role of mutations at the furin spike cleavage site and of non-spike proteins, the potential importance of recombination to virus success, and SARS-CoV-2 evolution in the context of T cells, innate immunity and population immunity. SARS-CoV-2 shows a complicated relationship among virus antigenicity, transmission and virulence, which has unpredictable implications for the future trajectory and disease burden of COVID-19.

Virus Evolution ; 8(veac080), 2022.
Article in English | CAB Abstracts | ID: covidwho-2051563


The first SARS-CoV-2 variant of concern (VOC) to be designated was lineage B.1.1.7, later labelled by the World Health Organization as Alpha. Originating in early autumn but discovered in December 2020, it spread rapidly and caused large waves of infections worldwide. The Alpha variant is notable for being defined by a long ancestral phylogenetic branch with an increased evolutionary rate, along which only two sequences have been sampled. Alpha genomes comprise a well-supported monophyletic clade within which the evolutionary rate is typical of SARS-CoV-2. The Alpha epidemic continued to grow despite the continued restrictions on social mixing across the UK and the imposition of new restrictions, in particular, the English national lockdown in November 2020. While these interventions succeeded in reducing the absolute number of cases, the impact of these non-pharmaceutical interventions was predominantly to drive the decline of the SARS-CoV-2 lineages that preceded Alpha. We investigate the only two sampled sequences that fall on the branch ancestral to Alpha. We find that one is likely to be a true intermediate sequence, providing information about the order of mutational events that led to Alpha. We explore alternate hypotheses that can explain how Alpha acquired a large number of mutations yet remained largely unobserved in a region of high genomic surveillance: an under-sampled geographical location, a non-human animal population, or a chronically infected individual. We conclude that the latter provides the best explanation of the observed behaviour and dynamics of the variant, although the individual need not be immunocompromised, as persistently infected immunocompetent hosts also display a higher within-host rate of evolution. Finally, we compare the ancestral branches and mutation profiles of other VOCs and find that Delta appears to be an outlier both in terms of the genomic locations of its defining mutations and a lack of the rapid evolutionary rate on its ancestral branch. As new variants, such as Omicron, continue to evolve (potentially through similar mechanisms), it remains important to investigate the origins of other variants to identify ways to potentially disrupt their evolution and emergence.