Background: The cause of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has been identified as a new coronavirus. Whole genome sequence analysis of various isolates might provide an indication of potential strain differences of this new virus. Moreover, mutation analysis will help to develop effective vaccines.
Methods: We sequenced the entire SARS viral genome of cultured isolates from the index case (SIN2500) presenting in Singapore, from three primary contacts (SIN2774, SIN2748, and SIN2677), and one secondary contact (SIN2679). These sequences were compared with the isolates from Canada (TOR2), Hong Kong (CUHK-W1 and HKU39849), Hanoi (URBANI), Guangzhou (GZ01), and Beijing (BJ01, BJ02, BJ03, BJ04).
Findings: We identified 129 sequence variations among the 14 isolates, with 16 recurrent variant sequences. Common variant sequences at four loci define two distinct genotypes of the SARS virus. One genotype was linked with infections originating in Hotel M in Hong Kong, the second contained isolates from Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Beijing with no association with Hotel M (p<0.0001). Moreover, other common sequence variants further distinguished the geographical origins of the isolates, especially between Singapore and Beijing.
Interpretation: Despite the recent onset of the SARS epidemic, genetic signatures are emerging that partition the worldwide SARS viral isolates into groups on the basis of contact source history and geography. These signatures can be used to trace sources of infection. In addition, a common variant associated with a non-conservative aminoacid change in the S1 region of the spike protein, suggests that immunological pressures might be starting to influence the evolution of the SARS virus in human populations.