Changing composition of SARS-CoV-2 lineages and rise of Delta variant in England


Background Since its emergence in Autumn 2020, the SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Concern (VOC) B.1.1.7 (WHO label Alpha) rapidly became the dominant lineage across much of Europe. Simultaneously, several other VOCs were identified globally. Unlike B.1.1.7, some of these VOCs possess mutations thought to confer partial immune escape. Understanding when and how these additional VOCs pose a threat in settings where B.1.1.7 is currently dominant is vital. Methods We examine trends in the prevalence of non-B.1.1.7 lineages in London and other English regions using passive-case detection PCR data, cross-sectional community infection surveys, genomic surveillance, and wastewater monitoring. The study period spans from 31st January 2021 to 15th May 2021. Findings Across data sources, the percentage of non-B.1.1.7 variants has been increasing since late March 2021. This increase was initially driven by a variety of lineages with immune escape. From mid-April, B.1.617.2 (WHO label Delta) spread rapidly, becoming the dominant variant in England by late May. Interpretation The outcome of competition between variants depends on a wide range of factors such as intrinsic transmissibility, evasion of prior immunity, demographic specificities and interactions with non-pharmaceutical interventions. The presence and rise of non-B.1.1.7 variants in March likely was driven by importations and some community transmission. There was competition between non-B.1.17 variants which resulted in B.1.617.2 becoming dominant in April and May with considerable community transmission. Our results underscore that early detection of new variants requires a diverse array of data sources in community surveillance. Continued real-time information on the highly dynamic composition and trajectory of different SARS-CoV-2 lineages is essential to future control efforts