Altered subgenomic RNA abundance provides unique insight into SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.7/Alpha variant infections

The COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) Consortium, Matthew Bashton, Darren Smith, Andrew Nelson, Gregory R. Young

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B.1.1.7 lineage SARS-CoV-2 is more transmissible, leads to greater clinical severity, and results in modest reductions in antibody neutralization. Subgenomic RNA (sgRNA) is produced by discontinuous transcription of the SARS-CoV-2 genome. Applying our tool (periscope) to ARTIC Network Oxford Nanopore Technologies genomic sequencing data from 4400 SARS-CoV-2 positive clinical samples, we show that normalised sgRNA is significantly increased in B.1.1.7 (alpha) infections (n = 879). This increase is seen over the previous dominant lineage in the UK, B.1.177 (n = 943), which is independent of genomic reads, E cycle threshold and days since symptom onset at sampling. A noncanonical sgRNA which could represent ORF9b is found in 98.4% of B.1.1.7 SARS-CoV-2 infections compared with only 13.8% of other lineages, with a 16-fold increase in median sgRNA abundance. We demonstrate that ORF9b protein levels are increased 6-fold in B.1.1.7 compared to a B lineage virus in vitro. We hypothesise that increased ORF9b in B.1.1.7 is a direct consequence of a triple nucleotide mutation in nucleocapsid (28280:GAT > CAT, D3L) creating a transcription regulatory-like sequence complementary to a region 3' of the genomic leader. These findings provide a unique insight into the biology of B.1.1.7 and support monitoring of sgRNA profiles to evaluate emerging potential variants of concern.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)666
JournalCommunications Biology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jul 2022

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