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1.
Preprint in English | bioRxiv | ID: ppbiorxiv-481609

ABSTRACT

The first SARS-CoV-2 variant of concern (VOC) to be designated was lineage B.1.1.7, later labelled by the World Health Organisation (WHO) 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 more 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 which 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 last hypothesis provides the best explanation of the observed behaviour and dynamics of the variant, although we find that 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 to each other, and identify that Delta appears to be an outlier both in terms of the genomic locations of its defining mutations, and its lack of rapid evolutionary rate on the 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.

2.
Preprint in English | medRxiv | ID: ppmedrxiv-21267267

ABSTRACT

The scale of data produced during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has been unprecedented, with more than 5 million sequences shared publicly at the time of writing. This wealth of sequence data provides important context for interpreting local outbreaks. However, placing sequences of interest into national and international context is difficult given the size of the global dataset. Often outbreak investigations and genomic surveillance efforts require running similar analyses again and again on the latest dataset and producing reports. We developed civet (cluster investigation and virus epidemiology tool) to aid these routine analyses and facilitate virus outbreak investigation and surveillance. Civet can place sequences of interest in the local context of background diversity, resolving the query into different catchments and presenting the phylogenetic results alongside metadata in an interactive, distributable report. Civet can be used on a fine scale for clinical outbreak investigation, for local surveillance and cluster discovery, and to routinely summarise the virus diversity circulating on a national level. Civet reports have helped researchers and public health bodies feedback genomic information in the appropriate context within a timeframe that is useful for public health.

3.
Preprint in English | medRxiv | ID: ppmedrxiv-21258689

ABSTRACT

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.

4.
Preprint in English | bioRxiv | ID: ppbiorxiv-328328

ABSTRACT

Genomic epidemiology has become an increasingly common tool for epidemic response. Recent technological advances have made it possible to sequence genomes rapidly enough to inform outbreak response, and cheaply enough to justify dense sampling of even large epidemics. With increased availability of sequencing it is possible for agile networks of sequencing facilities to collaborate on the sequencing and analysis of epidemic genomic data. In response to the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in the United Kingdom, the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium was formed with the aim of rapidly sequencing SARS-CoV-2 genomes as part of a national-scale genomic surveillance strategy. The network consists of universities, academic institutes, regional sequencing centres and the four UK Public Health Agencies. We describe the development and deployment of Majora, an encompassing digital infrastructure to address the challenge of collecting and integrating both genomic sequencing data and sample-associated metadata produced across the COG-UK network. The system was designed and implemented pragmatically to stand up capacity rapidly in a pandemic caused by a novel virus. This approach has underpinned the success of COG-UK, which has rapidly become the leading contributor of SARS-CoV-2 genomes to international databases and has generated over 60,000 sequences to date.

5.
Preprint in English | medRxiv | ID: ppmedrxiv-20166082

ABSTRACT

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.

6.
Preprint in English | bioRxiv | ID: ppbiorxiv-118992

ABSTRACT

Extensive global sampling and whole genome sequencing of the pandemic virus SARS-CoV-2 have enabled researchers to characterise its spread, and to identify mutations that may increase transmission or enable the virus to escape therapies or vaccines. Two important components of viral spread are how frequently variants arise within individuals, and how likely they are to be transmitted. Here, we characterise the within-host diversity of SARS-CoV-2, and the extent to which genetic diversity is transmitted, by quantifying variant frequencies in 1390 clinical samples from the UK, many from individuals in known epidemiological clusters. We show that SARS-CoV-2 infections are characterised by low levels of within-host diversity across the entire viral genome, with evidence of strong evolutionary constraint in Spike, a key target of vaccines and antibody-based therapies. Although within-host variants can be observed in multiple individuals in the same phylogenetic or epidemiological cluster, highly infectious individuals with high viral load carry only a limited repertoire of viral diversity. Most viral variants are either lost, or occasionally fixed, at the point of transmission, consistent with a narrow transmission bottleneck. These results suggest potential vaccine-escape mutations are likely to be rare in infectious individuals. Nonetheless, we identified Spike variants present in multiple individuals that may affect receptor binding or neutralisation by antibodies. Since the fitness advantage of escape mutations in highly-vaccinated populations is likely to be substantial, resulting in rapid spread if and when they do emerge, these findings underline the need for continued vigilance and monitoring.

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