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The B.1.427/1.429 (epsilon) SARS-CoV-2 variants are more virulent than ancestral B.1 (614G) in Syrian hamsters


As novel SARS-CoV-2 variants continue to emerge, it is critical that their potential to cause severe disease and evade vaccine-induced immunity is rapidly assessed in humans and studied in animal models. In early January 2021, a novel SARS-CoV-2 variant designated B.1.429 comprising 2 lineages, B.1.427 and B.1.429, was originally detected in California (CA) and it was shown to have enhanced infectivity in vitro and decreased antibody neutralization by plasma from convalescent patients and vaccine recipients. Here we examine the virulence, transmissibility, and susceptibility to pre-existing immunity for B 1.427 and B 1.429 in the Syrian hamster model. We find that both variants exhibit enhanced virulence as measured by increased body weight loss compared to hamsters infected with ancestral B.1 (614G), with B.1.429 causing the most marked body weight loss among the 3 variants. Faster dissemination from airways to parenchyma and more severe lung pathology at both early and late stages were also observed with B.1.429 infections relative to B.1. (614G) and B.1.427 infections. In addition, subgenomic viral RNA (sgRNA) levels were highest in oral swabs of hamsters infected with B.1.429, however sgRNA levels in lungs were similar in all three variants. This demonstrates that B.1.429 replicates to higher levels than ancestral B.1 (614G) or B.1.427 in the oropharynx but not in the lungs. In multi-virus in-vivo competition experiments, we found that B.1. (614G), epsilon (B.1.427/B.1.429) and gamma (P.1) dramatically outcompete alpha (B.1.1.7), beta (B.1.351) and zeta (P.2) in the lungs. In the nasal cavity, B.1. (614G), gamma, and epsilon dominate, but the highly infectious alpha variant also maintains a moderate size niche. We did not observe significant differences in airborne transmission efficiency among the B.1.427, B.1.429 and ancestral B.1 (614G) and WA-1 variants in hamsters. These results demonstrate enhanced virulence and high relative oropharyngeal replication of the epsilon (B.1.427/B.1.429) variant in Syrian hamsters compared to an ancestral B.1 (614G) variant.

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