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High-Throughput, Single-Copy Sequencing Reveals SARS-CoV-2 Spike Variants Coincident with Mounting Humoral Immunity during Acute COVID-19

By Sung Hee Ko, Elham Bayat Mokhtari, Prakriti Mudvari, Sydney Stein, Christopher D. Stringham, Danielle Wagner, Sabrina Ramelli, Marcos J. Ramos-Benitez, Jeffrey R Strich, Richard T Davey, Tongqing Zhou, John Misasi, Peter D Kwong, Daniel S Chertow, Nancy J. Sullivan, Eli A. Boritz

Posted 22 Feb 2021
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.02.21.432184

Tracking evolution of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) within infected individuals will help elucidate coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pathogenesis and inform use of antiviral interventions. In this study, we developed an approach for sequencing the region encoding the SARS-CoV-2 virion surface proteins from large numbers of individual virus RNA genomes per sample. We applied this approach to the WA-1 reference clinical isolate of SARS-CoV-2 passaged in vitro and to upper respiratory samples from 7 study participants with COVID-19. SARS-CoV-2 genomes from cell culture were diverse, including 18 haplotypes with non-synonymous mutations clustered in the spike NH2-terminal domain (NTD) and furin cleavage site regions. By contrast, cross-sectional analysis of samples from participants with COVID-19 showed fewer virus variants, without structural clustering of mutations. However, longitudinal analysis in one individual revealed 4 virus haplotypes bearing 3 independent mutations in a spike NTD epitope targeted by autologous antibodies. These mutations arose coincident with a 6.2-fold rise in serum binding to spike and a transient increase in virus burden. We conclude that SARS-CoV-2 exhibits a capacity for rapid genetic adaptation that becomes detectable in vivo with the onset of humoral immunity, with the potential to contribute to delayed virologic clearance in the acute setting. Author SummaryMutant sequences of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) arising during any individual case of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) could theoretically enable the virus to evade immune responses or antiviral therapies that target the predominant infecting virus sequence. However, commonly used sequencing technologies are not optimally designed to detect variant virus sequences within each sample. To address this issue, we developed novel technology for sequencing large numbers of individual SARS-CoV-2 genomic RNA molecules across the region encoding the virus surface proteins. This technology revealed extensive genetic diversity in cultured viruses from a clinical isolate of SARS-CoV-2, but lower diversity in samples from 7 individuals with COVID-19. Importantly, concurrent analysis of paired serum samples in selected individuals revealed relatively low levels of antibody binding to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein at the time of initial sequencing. With increased serum binding to spike protein, we detected multiple SARS-CoV-2 variants bearing independent mutations in a single epitope, as well as a transient increase in virus burden. These findings suggest that SARS-CoV-2 replication creates sufficient virus genetic diversity to allow immune-mediated selection of variants within the time frame of acute COVID-19. Large-scale studies of SARS-CoV-2 variation and specific immune responses will help define the contributions of intra-individual SARS-CoV-2 evolution to COVID-19 clinical outcomes and antiviral drug susceptibility.

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