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Emergence and widespread circulation of a recombinant SARS-CoV-2 lineage in North America

By Bernardo Gutierrez, Hugo G Castelan, Darlan da Silva Candido, Ben Jackson, Shay Fleishon, Christopher Ruis, Luis Delaye, Andrew Rambaut, Oliver Pybus, Marina Escalera-Zamudio

Posted 21 Nov 2021
medRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.11.19.21266601

Genetic recombination is an important driving force of coronavirus evolution. While some degree of virus recombination has been reported during the COVID-19 pandemic, previously detected recombinant lineages of SARS-CoV-2 have shown limited circulation and been observed only in restricted areas. Prompted by reports of unusual genetic similarities among several Pango lineages detected mainly in North and Central America, we present a detailed phylogenetic analysis of four SARS-CoV-2 lineages (B.1.627, B.1.628, B.1.631 and B.1.634) in order to investigate the possibility of virus recombination among them. Two of these lineages, B.1.628 and B.1.631, are split into two distinct clusters (here named major and minor). Our phylogenetic and recombination analyses of these lineages find well-supported phylogenetic differences between the Orf1ab region and the rest of the genome (S protein and remaining reading frames). The lineages also contain several deletions in the NSP6, Orf3a and S proteins that can augment reconstruction of reliable evolutionary histories. By reconciling the deletions and phylogenetic data, we conclude that the B.1.628 major cluster originated from a recombination event between a B.1.631 major virus and a lineage B.1.634 virus. This scenario inferred from genetic data is supported by the spatial and temporal distribution of the three lineages, which all co-circulated in the USA and Mexico during 2021, suggesting this region is where the recombination event took place. We therefore support the designation of the B.1.628 major cluster as recombinant lineage XB in the Pango nomenclature. The widespread circulation of lineage XB across multiple countries over a longer timespan than the previously designated recombinant XA lineage raises important questions regarding the role and potential effects of recombination on the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

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