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Since its emergence in late 2019, SARS-CoV-2 has diversified into a large number of lineages and caused multiple waves of infection globally. Novel lineages have the potential to spread rapidly and internationally if they have higher intrinsic transmissibility and/or can evade host immune responses, as has been seen with the Alpha, Delta, and Omicron variants of concern. They can also cause increased mortality and morbidity if they have increased virulence, as was seen for Alpha and Delta. Phylogenetic methods provide the "gold standard" for representing the global diversity of SARS-CoV-2 and to identify newly emerging lineages. However, these methods are computationally expensive, struggle when datasets get too large, and require manual curation to designate new lineages. These challenges provide a motivation to develop complementary methods that can incorporate all of the genetic data available without down-sampling to extract meaningful information rapidly and with minimal curation. In this paper, we demonstrate the utility of using algorithmic approaches based on word-statistics to represent whole sequences, bringing speed, scalability, and interpretability to the construction of genetic topologies. While not serving as a substitute for current phylogenetic analyses, the proposed methods can be used as a complementary, and fully automatable, approach to identify and confirm new emerging variants.

Original publication




Journal article


Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A

Publication Date





SARS-CoV-2, clustering, dimensionality reduction, machine learning, phylogenetics, Humans, SARS-CoV-2, COVID-19, Phylogeny, Machine Learning