The Rise and Fall of SARS-CoV-2 Variants and Ongoing Diversification of Omicron

Viruses. 2022 Sep 10;14(9):2009. doi: 10.3390/v14092009.


In late December of 2019, high-throughput sequencing technologies enabled rapid identification of SARS-CoV-2 as the etiological agent of COVID-19, and global sequencing efforts are now a critical tool for monitoring the ongoing spread and evolution of this virus. Here, we provide a short retrospective analysis of SARS-CoV-2 variants by analyzing a subset (n = 97,437) of all publicly available SARS-CoV-2 genomes (n = ~11.9 million) that were randomly selected but equally distributed over the course of the pandemic. We plot the appearance of new variants of concern (VOCs) over time and show that the mutation rates in Omicron (BA.1) and Omicron sub-lineages (BA.2-BA.5) are significantly elevated compared to previously identified SARS-CoV-2 variants. Mutations in Omicron are primarily restricted to the spike and nucleocapsid proteins, while 24 other viral proteins-including those involved in SARS-CoV-2 replication-are generally conserved. Collectively, this suggests that the genetic distinction of Omicron primarily arose from selective pressures on the spike, and that the fidelity of replication of this variant has not been altered.

Keywords: BA.4; BA.5; COVID-19; Omicron; SARS-CoV-2; viral surveillance.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Humans
  • Nucleocapsid Proteins
  • Retrospective Studies
  • SARS-CoV-2* / genetics
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / genetics
  • Viral Proteins


  • Nucleocapsid Proteins
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus
  • Viral Proteins
  • spike protein, SARS-CoV-2

Supplementary concepts

  • SARS-CoV-2 variants