Over the last few weeks, the United Kingdom and South Africa have faced a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases leading to enhanced epidemiological and virological investigations. Analysis of viral genome sequence data identified a sizeable proportion of cases belonging to new phylogenetic clusters. The new SARS-CoV-2 variants are defined by nonsynonymous, several of which are found in the viral spike protein, and still of uncertain functional significance. While it is known that viruses constantly change through mutation, and seldom does it lead to biological changes, the variants now increasingly observed in the UK and South Africa may be associated with increased infectivity.
An interdisciplinary team led by Andreas Bergthaler and Christoph Bock at CeMM in collaboration with the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety (AGES), have now looked for this specific SARS-CoV-2 variants with multiple spike protein mutations by sequencing additional 400 virus samples in Austria over the Christmas holidays. Among the latest sequenced and analyzed virus samples in December (data still to be uploaded to GISAID), there were 4 cases of the UK variant and 1 case of the South Africa variant. This means that the new virus variants have now also been confirmed in Austria. Some of the analyzed SARS-CoV-2 positive cases were related to Great Britain.
CeMM is proud to be able to provide this important analysis of SARS-CoV-2 sequences for Austria and the international scientific community, commensurate to the available means. CeMM, however, abstains from any speculative interpretation on the data it produces or from suggestions on policy measures.
Following its quest to create the molecular basis for precision medicine and wishing to contribute to fight the COVID-19 pandemia, scientists at CeMM have been sequencing the SARS-CoV-2 genome since March 2020, despite limited financial resources and difficult working conditions due to the pandemic. More than 1800 samples from Austria have been sequenced so far, of which around 1300 resulted in full-length high quality SARS-CoV-2 genomes and 750 have already been deposited in the public database GISAID. The platform is updated on a regular basis with additional sequences, in order to learn more about the molecular understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic and the causative pathogen.