Australia experienced widespread COVID-19 outbreaks from infection with the SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant between June 2021 and February 2022. A 17-nucleotide frameshift-inducing deletion in ORF7a rapidly became represented at the consensus level (Delta-ORF7aΔ17del) in most Australian outbreak cases. Studies from early in the COVID-19 pandemic suggest that frameshift-inducing deletions in ORF7a do not persist for long in the population; therefore, Delta-ORF7aΔ17del genomes should have disappeared early in the Australian outbreak. In this study, we conducted a retrospective analysis of global Delta genomes to characterise the dynamics of Delta-ORF7aΔ17del over time, determined the frequency of all ORF7a deletions worldwide, and compared global trends with those of the Australian Delta outbreak. We downloaded all GISAID clade GK Delta genomes and scanned them for deletions in ORF7a. For each deletion we identified, we characterised its frequency, the number of countries it was found in, and how long it persisted. Of the 4,018,216 Delta genomes identified globally, 134,751 (~3.35%) possessed an ORF7a deletion, and ORF7aΔ17del was the most common. ORF7aΔ17del was the sole deletion in 28,014 genomes, of which 27,912 (~99.6%) originated from the Australian outbreak. During the outbreak, ~87% of genomes were Delta-ORF7aΔ17del, and genomes with this deletion were sampled until the outbreak's end. These data demonstrate that, contrary to suggestions early in the COVID-19 pandemic, genomes with frameshifting deletions in ORF7a can persist over long time periods. We suggest that the proliferation of Delta-ORF7aΔ17del genomes was likely a chance founder effect. Nonetheless, the frequency of ORF7a deletions in SARS-CoV-2 genomes worldwide suggests they might have some benefit for virus transmission.
Keywords: ORF7a; SARS-CoV-2; indel; outbreak.