We found two subclades descending from the Wuhan HU-1 strain that rapidly became dominant in Western Europe and the U.S. These variants contained nonsynonymous nucleotide mutations in the Orf1ab segment encoding RNA-dependent RNA polymerase. In Western Europe, the A23403G-C14408T subclade dominated, while in the US, it became the dominant strain.
Mechanisms underlying the acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)-like clinical manifestations leading to deaths in patients who develop COVID-19 remain uncharacterized. While multiple factors could influence these clinical outcomes, we explored if differences in transmissibility and pathogenicity of SARS-CoV2 variants could contribute to these terminal clinical consequences of COVID-19. We analyzed 34,412 SARS-CoV2 sequences deposited in the Global Initiative for Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID) SARS-CoV2 sequence database to determine if regional differences in circulating strain variants correlated with increased mortality in Europe, the United States, and California. We found two subclades descending from the Wuhan HU-1 strain that rapidly became dominant in Western Europe and the United States. These variants contained nonsynonymous nucleotide mutations in the Orf1ab segment encoding RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (C14408T), the spike protein gene (A23403G), and Orf1a (G25563T), which resulted in non-conservative amino acid substitutions P323L, D614G, and Q57H, respectively. In Western Europe, the A23403G-C14408T subclade dominated, while in the US, the A23403G-C14408T-G25563T mutant became the dominant strain in New York and parts of California. The high cumulative frequencies of both subclades showed inconsistent but significant association with high cumulative CFRs in some of the regions. When the frequencies of the subclades were analyzed by their 7-day moving averages across each epidemic, we found co-circulation of both subclades to temporally correlate with peak mortality periods. We postulate that in areas with high numbers of these co-circulating subclades, a person may get serially infected. The second infection may trigger a hyperinflammatory response similar to the antibody-dependent enhancement (ADE) response, which could explain the ARDS-like manifestations observed in people with co-morbidity, who may not mount sufficient levels of neutralizing antibodies against the first infection. Further studies are necessary but the implication of such a mechanism will need to be considered for all current COVID-19 vaccine designs.