SARS-CoV-2 within-host and in-vitro genomic variability and sub-genomic RNA levels indicate differences in viral expression between clinical and in-vitro cohorts
Low frequency intrahost single nucleotide variants (iSNVs) of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) have been increasingly recognised as predictive indicators of positive selection. Particularly as growing numbers of SARS-CoV-2 variants of interest (VOI) and concern (VOC) emerge. However, the dynamics of subgenomic RNA (sgRNA) expression and its impact on genomic diversity and infection outcome remain poorly understood. This study aims to investigate and quantify iSNVs
... sgRNA expression in single and longitudinally sampled cohorts over the course of mild and severe SARS-CoV-2 infection benchmarked against an in-vitro infection model. Methods: Two clinical cohorts of SARS-CoV-2 positive cases in New South Wales, Australia collected between March 2020 and August 2021 were sequenced. Longitudinal samples from cases hospitalised due to SARS-CoV-2 infection (severe) were analysed and compared with cases that presented with SARS-CoV-2 symptoms but were not hospitalised (mild). SARS-CoV-2 genomic diversity profiles were also examined from daily sampling of culture experiments for three SARS-CoV-2 variants (Lineage A, B.1.351, and B.1.617.2) cultured in VeroE6 C1008 cells (n = 33). Results: ISNVs were detected in 83% (19/23) of the mild cohort cases and 100% (16/16) of the severe cohort cases. SNP profiles remained relatively fixed over time, with an average of 1.66 SNPs gained or lost and an average of 4.2 and 5.9 low frequency variants per patient were detected in severe and mild infection, respectively. SgRNA was detected in 100% (25/25) of the mild genomes and 92% (24/26) of the severe genomes. Total sgRNA expressed across all genes in the mild cohort was significantly higher than that of the severe cohort. Significantly higher expression levels were detected in the spike and the nucleocapsid genes. There was significantly less sgRNA detected in the culture cohort than the clinical. Discussion and Conclusions: The positions and frequencies of iSNVs in the severe and mild infection cohorts were dynamic overtime, highlighting the importance of continual monitoring, particularly during community outbreaks where multiple SARS-Cov-2 variants may co-circulate. SgRNA levels can vary across patients and the overall level of sgRNA reads compared to genomic RNA can be less than 1%. The relative contribution of sgRNA to the severity of illness warrants further investigation given the level of variation between genomes. Further monitoring of sgRNAs will improve the understanding of SARS-CoV-2 evolution and the effectiveness of therapeutic and public health containment measures during the pandemic.