Evidence for adaptive evolution in the receptor-binding domain of seasonal coronaviruses

Kistler KE, Bedford T. 2020. bioRxiv: 2020.10.30.352914.

Abstract

Seasonal coronaviruses (OC43, 229E, NL63 and HKU1) are endemic to the human population, regularly infecting and reinfecting humans while typically causing asymptomatic to mild respiratory infections. It is not known to what extent reinfection by these viruses is due to waning immune memory or antigenic drift of the viruses. Here, we address the influence of antigenic drift on immune evasion of seasonal coronaviruses. We provide evidence that at least two of these viruses, OC43 and 229E, are undergoing adaptive evolution in regions of the viral spike protein that are exposed to human humoral immunity. This suggests that reinfection may be due, in part, to positively-selected genetic changes in these viruses that enable them to escape recognition by the immune system. It is possible that, as with seasonal influenza, these adaptive changes in antigenic regions of the virus would necessitate continual reformulation of a vaccine made against them.