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Genomic surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 lineages informs our understanding of possible future changes in transmissibility and vaccine efficacy and will be a high priority for public health for the foreseeable future. However, small changes in the frequency of one lineage over another are often difficult to interpret because surveillance samples are obtained using a variety of methods all of which are known to contain biases. As a case study, using an approach which is largely free of biases, we here describe lineage dynamics and phylogenetic relationships of the Alpha and Beta variant in England during the first 3 months of 2021 using sequences obtained from a random community sample who provided a throat and nose swab for rt-PCR as part of the REal-time Assessment of Community Transmission-1 (REACT-1) study. Overall, diversity decreased during the first quarter of 2021, with the Alpha variant (first identified in Kent) becoming predominant, driven by a reproduction number 0.3 higher than for the prior wild-type. During January, positive samples were more likely to be Alpha in those aged 18 to 54 years old. Although individuals infected with the Alpha variant were no more likely to report one or more classic COVID-19 symptoms compared to those infected with wild-type, they were more likely to be antibody-positive 6 weeks after infection. Further, viral load was higher in those infected with the Alpha variant as measured by cycle threshold (Ct) values. The presence of infections with non-imported Beta variant (first identified in South Africa) during January, but not during February or March, suggests initial establishment in the community followed by fade-out. However, this occurred during a period of stringent social distancing. These results highlight how sequence data from representative community surveys such as REACT-1 can augment routine genomic surveillance during periods of lineage diversity.

Original publication




Journal article


Microbial genomics

Publication Date





School of Public Health, Imperial College London, London, UK.


Humans, Phylogeny, Adolescent, Adult, Middle Aged, England, Young Adult, COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2