Abstract: Variants of SARS-CoV-2 are evolving under a combination of immune selective pressure in infected hosts and natural genetic drift, raising a global alarm regarding the durability of COVID-19 vaccines. Here, we conducted longitudinal analysis over 1.8 million SARS-CoV-2 genomes from 183 countries or territories to capture vaccination-associated viral evolutionary patterns. To augment this macroscale analysis, we performed viral genome sequencing in 23 vaccine breakthrough COVID-19 patients and 30 unvaccinated COVID-19 patients for whom we also conducted machine-augmented curation of the electronic health records (EHRs). Strikingly, we find the diversity of the SARS-CoV-2 lineages is declining at the country-level with increased rate of mass vaccination (n = 25 countries, mean correlation coefficient = -0.72, S.D. = 0.20). Given that the COVID-19 vaccines leverage B-cell and T-cell epitopes, analysis of mutation rates shows neutralizing B-cell epitopes to be particularly more mutated than comparable amino acid clusters (4.3-fold, p < 0.001). Prospective validation of these macroscale evolutionary patterns using clinically annotated SARS-CoV-2 whole genome sequences confirms that vaccine breakthrough patients indeed harbor viruses with significantly lower diversity in known B cell epitopes compared to unvaccinated COVID-19 patients (2.3-fold, 95% C.I. 1.4-3.7). Incidentally, in these study cohorts, vaccinated breakthrough patients also displayed fewer COVID-associated complications and pre-existing conditions relative to unvaccinated COVID-19 patients. This study presents the first known evidence that COVID-19 vaccines are fundamentally restricting the evolutionary and antigenic escape pathways accessible to SARS-CoV-2. The societal benefit of mass vaccination may consequently go far beyond the widely reported mitigation of SARS-CoV-2 infection risk and amelioration of community transmission, to include stemming of rampant viral evolution.
Michiel J.M. Niesen, Praveen Anand, Eli Silvert, Rohit Suratekar, Colin Pawlowski, Pritha Ghosh, Patrick Lenehan, Travis Hughes, David Zemmour, John C. O’Horo, Joseph D. Yao, Bobbi S. Pritt, Andrew Norgan, Ryan T. Hurt, Andrew D. Badley, AJ Venkatakrishnan, Venky Soundararajan