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Increased transmission of SARS-CoV-2 lineage B.1.1.7 (VOC 2020212/01) is not accounted for by a replicative advantage in primary airway cells or antibody escape

By Jonathan C. Brown, Daniel H. Goldhill, Jie Zhou, Thomas P. Peacock, Rebecca Frise, Niluka Goonawardane, Laury Baillon, Ruthiran Kugathasan, Andreia L Pinto, Paul F. McKay, Jack Hassard, Maya Moshe, Aran Singanayagam, Thomas Burgoyne, the ATACCC Investigators, PHE Virology Consortium, Wendy Barclay

Posted 24 Feb 2021
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.02.24.432576

Lineage B.1.1.7 (Variant of Concern 202012/01) is a new SARS-CoV-2 variant which was first sequenced in the UK in September 2020 before becoming the majority strain in the UK and spreading worldwide. The rapid spread of the B.1.1.7 variant results from increased transmissibility but the virological characteristics which underpin this advantage over other circulating strains remain unknown. Here, we demonstrate that there is no difference in viral replication between B.1.1.7 and other contemporaneous SARS-CoV-2 strains in primary human airway epithelial (HAE) cells. However, B.1.1.7 replication is disadvantaged in Vero cells potentially due to increased furin-mediated cleavage of its spike protein as a result of a P681H mutation directly adjacent to the S1/S2 cleavage site. In addition, we show that B.1.1.7 does not escape neutralisation by convalescent or post-vaccination sera. Thus, increased transmission of B.1.1.7 is not caused by increased replication, as measured on HAE cells, or escape from serological immunity.

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