A comparative recombination analysis of human coronaviruses and implications for the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic

Sci Rep. 2021 Aug 30;11(1):17365. doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-96626-8.


The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic prompts evaluation of recombination in human coronavirus (hCoV) evolution. We undertook recombination analyses of 158,118 public seasonal hCoV, SARS-CoV-1, SARS-CoV-2 and MERS-CoV genome sequences using the RDP4 software. We found moderate evidence for 8 SARS-CoV-2 recombination events, two of which involved the spike gene, and low evidence for one SARS-CoV-1 recombination event. Within MERS-CoV, 229E, OC43, NL63 and HKU1 datasets, we noted 7, 1, 9, 14, and 1 high-confidence recombination events, respectively. There was propensity for recombination breakpoints in the non-ORF1 region of the genome containing structural genes, and recombination severely skewed the temporal structure of these data, especially for NL63 and OC43. Bayesian time-scaled analyses on recombinant-free data indicated the sampled diversity of seasonal CoVs emerged in the last 70 years, with 229E displaying continuous lineage replacements. These findings emphasize the importance of genomic based surveillance to detect recombination in SARS-CoV-2, particularly if recombination may lead to immune evasion.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Bayes Theorem
  • Databases, Genetic
  • Genome, Viral
  • Humans
  • Immune Evasion
  • Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus / classification
  • Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus / genetics*
  • Recombination, Genetic*
  • SARS-CoV-2 / classification
  • SARS-CoV-2 / genetics*
  • Severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus / classification
  • Severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus / genetics*
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / genetics
  • Viral Nonstructural Proteins / genetics


  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus
  • Viral Nonstructural Proteins
  • nonstructural protein, coronavirus