One Year into the Pandemic: Short-Term Evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and Emergence of New Lineages

Fernando Gonzalez-Candelas et al. April 26, 2021

Infection, Genetics and Evolution

Gonzalez-Candelas F., ShawM.-A., Phan T., Kulkarni-Kale U., Paraskevis D., Luciani F., KimuraH. & Sironi M.


The COVID-19 pandemic was officially declared on March 11th, 2020. Since the very beginning, the spread of the virus has been tracked nearly in real-time by worldwide genome sequencing efforts. As of March 2021, more than 830,000 SARS-CoV-2 genomes have been uploaded in GISAID and this wealth of data allowed researchers to study the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 during this first pandemic year. In parallel, nomenclatures systems, often with poor consistency among each other, have been developed to designate emerging viral lineages. Despite general fears that the virus might mutate to become more virulent or transmissible, SARS-CoV-2 genetic diversity has remained relatively low during the first ~ 8 months of sustained human-to-human transmission. At the end of 2020/beginning of 2021, though, some alarming events started to raise concerns of possible changes in the evolutionary trajectory of the virus. Specifically, three new viral variants associated with extensive transmission have been described as variants of concern (VOC). These variants were first reported in the UK (B.1.1.7), South Africa (B.1.351) and Brazil (P.1). Their designation as VOCs was determined by an increase of local cases and by the high number of amino acid substitutions harboured by these lineages. This latter feature is reminiscent of viral sequences isolated from immunocompromised patients with long-term infection, suggesting a possible causal link. Here we review the events that led to the identification of these lineages, as well as emerging data concerning their possible implications for viral phenotypes, reinfection risk, vaccine efficiency and epidemic potential. Most of the available evidence is, to date, provisional, but still represents a starting point to uncover the potential threat posed by the VOCs. We also stress that genomic surveillance must be strengthened, especially in the wake of the vaccination campaigns.

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