Covid19 Forensic Genetics

Fig. 1. Phylogenetic network of 160 SARS-CoV-2 genomes. Node A is the root cluster obtained with the bat (R. affinis) coronavirus isolate BatCoVRaTG13 from Yunnan Province. Circle areas are proportional to the number of taxa, and each notch on the links represents a mutated nucleotide position

A recent study employed modern genetic techniques to analyze the progressive mutations of the novel coronavirus as it spread across the world.  The paper is Phylogenetic network analysis of SARS-CoV-2 genomes.  Excerpts in italics with my bolds.

This is a phylogenetic network of SARS-CoV-2 genomes sampled from across the world. These genomes are closely related and under evolutionary selection in their human hosts, sometimes with parallel evolution events, that is, the same virus mutation emerges in two different human hosts. This makes character-based phylogenetic networks the method of choice for reconstructing their evolutionary paths and their ancestral genome in the human host. The network method has been used in around 10,000 phylogenetic studies of diverse organisms, and is mostly known for reconstructing the prehistoric population movements of humans and for ecological studies, but is less commonly employed in the field of virology.

In a phylogenetic network analysis of 160 complete human severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-Cov-2) genomes, we find three central variants distinguished by amino acid changes, which we have named A, B, and C, with A being the ancestral type according to the bat outgroup coronavirus. The A and C types are found in significant proportions outside East Asia, that is, in Europeans and Americans. In contrast, the B type is the most common type in East Asia, and its ancestral genome appears not to have spread outside East Asia without first mutating into derived B types, pointing to founder effects or immunological or environmental resistance against this type outside Asia. The network faithfully traces routes of infections for documented coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases, indicating that phylogenetic networks can likewise be successfully used to help trace undocumented COVID-19 infection sources, which can then be quarantined to prevent recurrent spread of the disease worldwide.

In early March 2020, the GISAID database ( contained a compilation of 253 severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) complete and partial genomes contributed by clinicians and researchers from across the world since December 2019. To understand the evolution of this virus within humans, and to assist in tracing infection pathways and designing preventive strategies, we here present a phylogenetic network of 160 largely complete SARS-Cov-2 genomes (Fig. 1).

Although SARS-CoV-2 is an RNA virus, the deposited sequences, by convention, are in DNA format. Our initial alignment confirmed an earlier report by Zhou et al. (7) that the pangolin coronavirus sequences are poorly conserved with respect to the human SARS-CoV-2 virus, while the bat coronavirus yielded a sequence similarity of 96.2% in our analysis, in agreement with the 96.2% published by Zhou et al. We discarded partial sequences, and used only the most complete genomes that we aligned to the full reference genome by Wu et al. (8) comprising 29,903 nucleotides

Zhou et al. (7) recently reported a closely related bat coronavirus, with 96.2% sequence similarity to the human virus. We use this bat virus as an outgroup, resulting in the root of the network being placed in a cluster of lineages which we have labeled “A.” Overall, the network, as expected in an ongoing outbreak, shows ancestral viral genomes existing alongside their newly mutated daughter genomes.

There are two subclusters of A which are distinguished by the synonymous mutation T29095C. In the T-allele subcluster, four Chinese individuals (from the southern coastal Chinese province of Guangdong) carry the ancestral genome, while three Japanese and two American patients differ from it by a number of mutations. These American patients are reported to have had a history of residence in the presumed source of the outbreak in Wuhan. The C-allele subcluster sports relatively long mutational branches and includes five individuals from Wuhan, two of which are represented in the ancestral node, and eight other East Asians from China and adjacent countries. It is noteworthy that nearly half (15/33) of the types in this subcluster, however, are found outside East Asia, mainly in the United States and Australia.

Two derived network nodes are striking in terms of the number of individuals included in the nodal type and in mutational branches radiating from these nodes. We have labeled these phylogenetic clusters B and C.

One practical application of the phylogenetic network is to reconstruct infection paths where they are unknown and pose a public health risk. The following cases where the infection history is well documented may serve as illustrations (SI Appendix). On 25 February 2020, the first Brazilian was reported to have been infected following a visit to Italy, and the network algorithm reflects this with a mutational link between an Italian and his Brazilian viral genome in cluster C (SI Appendix, Fig. S1). In another case, a man from Ontario had traveled from Wuhan in central China to Guangdong in southern China and then returned to Canada, where he fell ill and was conclusively diagnosed with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) on 27 January 2020. In the phylogenetic network (SI Appendix, Fig. S2), his virus genome branches from a reconstructed ancestral node, with derived virus variants in Foshan and Shenzhen (both in Guangdong province), in agreement with his travel history. His virus genome now coexists with those of other infected North Americans (one Canadian and two Californians) who evidently share a common viral genealogy. The case of the single Mexican viral genome in the network is a documented infection diagnosed on 28 February 2020 in a Mexican traveler to Italy. Not only does the network confirm the Italian origin of the Mexican virus (SI Appendix, Fig. S3), but it also implies that this Italian virus derives from the first documented German infection on 27 January 2020 in an employee working for the Webasto company in Munich, who, in turn, had contracted the infection from a Chinese colleague in Shanghai who had received a visit by her parents from Wuhan. This viral journey from Wuhan to Mexico, lasting a month, is documented by 10 mutations in the phylogenetic network.



One comment

  1. oiltranslator · April 20, 2020

    How reassuring!


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