Emerging Vaccine-Breakthrough SARS-CoV-2 Variants

ACS Infect Dis. 2022 Mar 11;8(3):546-556. doi: 10.1021/acsinfecdis.1c00557. Epub 2022 Feb 8.


The surge of COVID-19 infections has been fueled by new SARS-CoV-2 variants, namely Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and so forth. The molecular mechanism underlying such surge is elusive due to the existence of 28 554 unique mutations, including 4 653 non-degenerate mutations on the spike protein. Understanding the molecular mechanism of SARS-CoV-2 transmission and evolution is a prerequisite to foresee the trend of emerging vaccine-breakthrough variants and the design of mutation-proof vaccines and monoclonal antibodies. We integrate the genotyping of 1 489 884 SARS-CoV-2 genomes, a library of 130 human antibodies, tens of thousands of mutational data, topological data analysis, and deep learning to reveal SARS-CoV-2 evolution mechanism and forecast emerging vaccine-breakthrough variants. We show that prevailing variants can be quantitatively explained by infectivity-strengthening and vaccine-escape (co-)mutations on the spike protein RBD due to natural selection and/or vaccination-induced evolutionary pressure. We illustrate that infectivity strengthening mutations were the main mechanism for viral evolution, while vaccine-escape mutations become a dominating viral evolutionary mechanism among highly vaccinated populations. We demonstrate that Lambda is as infectious as Delta but is more vaccine-resistant. We analyze emerging vaccine-breakthrough comutations in highly vaccinated countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Denmark, and so forth. Finally, we identify sets of comutations that have a high likelihood of massive growth: [A411S, L452R, T478K], [L452R, T478K, N501Y], [V401L, L452R, T478K], [K417N, L452R, T478K], [L452R, T478K, E484K, N501Y], and [P384L, K417N, E484K, N501Y]. We predict they can escape existing vaccines. We foresee an urgent need to develop new virus combating strategies.

Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; comutations; infectivity; vaccine-breakthrough; vaccine-resistant.