The emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern is driven by acceleration of the evolutionary rate [article]

John H Tay, Ashleigh F Porter, Wytamma Wirth, Sebastian Duchene
2021 medRxiv   pre-print
The ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has seen an unprecedented amount of rapidly generated genome data. These data have revealed the emergence of lineages with mutations associated to transmissibility and antigenicity, known as variants of concern (VOCs). A striking aspect of VOCs is that many of them involve an unusually large number of defining mutations. Current phylogenetic estimates of the evolutionary rate of SARS-CoV-2 suggest that its genome accrues around 2 mutations per month. However,
more » ... can have around 15 defining mutations and it is hypothesised that they emerged over the course of a few months, implying that they must have evolved faster for a period of time. We analysed genome sequence data from the GISAID database to assess whether the emergence of VOCs can be attributed to changes in the evolutionary rate of the virus and whether this pattern can be detected at a phylogenetic level using genome data. We fit a range of molecular clock models and assessed their statistical fit. Our analyses indicate that the emergence of VOCs is driven by an episodic increase in the evolutionary rate of around 4-fold the background phylogenetic rate estimate that may have lasted several weeks or months. These results underscore the importance of monitoring the molecular evolution of the virus as a means of understanding the circumstances under which VOCs may emerge.
doi:10.1101/2021.08.29.21262799 fatcat:eh6mqstzrjhmbo5rduazvwvao4