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The unique evolutionary dynamics of the SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant

, Shay Fleishon, Talia Kustin, Michal Mandelboim, Oran Erster, Israel Consortium of SARS-CoV-2 sequencing, Ella Mendelson, Orna Mor, Neta S. Zuckerman
Published: 7 August 2021
Abstract: The SARS-Coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) driven pandemic was first recognized in late 2019, and the first few months of its evolution were relatively clock-like, dominated mostly by neutral substitutions. In contrast, the second year of the pandemic was punctuated by the emergence of several variants that bore evidence of dramatic evolution. Here, we compare and contrast evolutionary patterns of various variants, with a focus on the recent Delta variant. Most variants are characterized by long branches leading to their emergence, with an excess of non-synonymous substitutions occurring particularly in the Spike and Nucleocapsid proteins. In contrast, the Delta variant that is now becoming globally dominant, lacks the signature long branch, and is characterized by a step-wise evolutionary process that is ongoing. Contrary to the “star-like” topologies of other variants, we note the formation of several distinct clades within Delta that we denote as clades A-E. We find that sequences from the Delta D clade are dramatically increasing in frequency across different regions of the globe. Delta D is characterized by an excess of non-synonymous mutations, mostly occurring in ORF1a/b, some of which occurred in parallel in other notable variants. We conclude that the Delta surge these days is composed almost exclusively of Delta D, and discuss whether selection or random genetic drift has driven the emergence of Delta D.
Keywords: Delta variant / clades / branches / pandemic / CoV / SARS / proteins / evolutionary

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