Tracing the adaptive evolution of SARS-CoV-2 during vaccine roll-out in Norway

Virus Evol. 2023 Dec 20;10(1):vead081. doi: 10.1093/ve/vead081. eCollection 2024 Jan.


Vaccination against SARS-CoV-2 has greatly mitigated the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, concerns have been raised about the degree to which vaccination might drive the emergence and selection of immune escape mutations that will hamper the efficacy of the vaccines. In this study, we investigate whether vaccination impacted the micro-scale adaptive evolution of SARS-CoV-2 in the Oslo region of Norway, during the first nine months of 2021, a period in which the population went from near-zero to almost 90 per cent vaccine coverage in the population over 50 years old. Weekly aggregated data stratified by age on vaccine uptake and number of SARS-CoV-2 cases in the area were obtained from the National Immunization Registry and the Norwegian Surveillance System for Communicable Diseases, respectively. A total of 6,438 virus sequences (7.5 per cent of the registered cases) along with metadata were available. We used a causal-driven approach to investigate the relationship between vaccination progress and changes in the frequency of 362 mutations present in at least ten samples, conditioned on the emergence of new lineages, time, and population vaccination coverage. After validating our approach, we identified 21 positive and 12 negative connections between vaccination progress and mutation prevalence, and most of them were outside the Spike protein. We observed a tendency for the mutations that we identified as positively connected with vaccination to decrease as the vaccinated population increased. After modelling the fitness of different competing mutations in a population, we found that our observations could be explained by a clonal interference phenomenon in which high fitness mutations would be outcompeted by the emergence or introduction of other high-fitness mutations.

Keywords: COVID-19; mutations; phylogeny; vaccination.