Analysis of SARS-CoV-2 in Nasopharyngeal Samples from Patients with COVID-19 Illustrates Population Variation and Diverse Phenotypes, Placing the Growth Properties of Variants of Concern in Context with Other Lineages.
Prince T., Dong X., Penrice-Randal R., Randle N., Hartley C., Goldswain H., Jones B., Semple MG., Baillie JK., Openshaw PJM., Turtle L., Hughes GL., Anderson ER., Patterson EI., Druce J., Screaton G., Carroll MW., Stewart JP., Hiscox JA.
New variants of SARS-CoV-2 are continuing to emerge and dominate the global sequence landscapes. Several variants have been labeled variants of concern (VOCs) because they may have a transmission advantage, increased risk of morbidity and/or mortality, or immune evasion upon a background of prior infection or vaccination. Placing the VOCs in context with the underlying variability of SARS-CoV-2 is essential in understanding virus evolution and selection pressures. Dominant genome sequences and the population genetics of SARS-CoV-2 in nasopharyngeal swabs from hospitalized patients were characterized. Nonsynonymous changes at a minor variant level were identified. These populations were generally preserved when isolates were amplified in cell culture. To place the Alpha, Beta, Delta, and Omicron VOCs in context, their growth was compared to clinical isolates of different lineages from earlier in the pandemic. The data indicated that the growth in cell culture of the Beta variant was more than that of the other variants in Vero E6 cells but not in hACE2-A549 cells. Looking at each time point, Beta grew more than the other VOCs in hACE2-A549 cells at 24 to 48 h postinfection. At 72 h postinfection there was no difference in the growth of any of the variants in either cell line. Overall, this work suggested that exploring the biology of SARS-CoV-2 is complicated by population dynamics and that these need to be considered with new variants. In the context of variation seen in other coronaviruses, the variants currently observed for SARS-CoV-2 are very similar in terms of their clinical spectrum of disease. IMPORTANCE SARS-CoV-2 is the causative agent of COVID-19. The virus has spread across the planet, causing a global pandemic. In common with other coronaviruses, SARS-CoV-2 genomes can become quite diverse as a consequence of replicating inside cells. This has given rise to multiple variants from the original virus that infected humans. These variants may have different properties and in the context of a widespread vaccination program may render vaccines less effective. Our research confirms the degree of genetic diversity of SARS-CoV-2 in patients. By comparing the growth of previous variants to the pattern seen with four variants of concern (VOCs) (Alpha, Beta, Delta, and Omicron), we show that, at least in cells, Beta variant growth exceeds that of Alpha, Delta, and Omicron VOCs at 24 to 48 h in both Vero E6 and hACE2-A549 cells, but by 72 h postinfection, the amount of virus is not different from that of the other VOCs.