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Evolutionary origins of the SARS-CoV-2 sarbecovirus lineage responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic

Abstract

There are outstanding evolutionary questions on the recent emergence of coronavirus SARS-CoV-2/hCoV-19 in Hubei province that caused the COVID-19 pandemic, including (1) the relationship of the new virus to the SARS-related coronaviruses, (2) the role of bats as a reservoir species, (3) the potential role of other mammals in the emergence event, and (4) the role of recombination in viral emergence. Here, we address these questions and find that the sarbecoviruses – the viral subgenus responsible for the emergence of SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 – exhibit frequent recombination, but the SARS-CoV-2 lineage itself is not a recombinant of any viruses detected to date. In order to employ phylogenetic methods to date the divergence events between SARS-CoV-2 and the bat sarbecovirus reservoir, recombinant regions of a 68-genome sarbecovirus alignment were removed with three independent methods. Bayesian evolutionary rate and divergence date estimates were consistent for all three recombination-free alignments and robust to two different prior specifications based on HCoV-OC43 and MERS-CoV evolutionary rates. Divergence dates between SARS-CoV-2 and the bat sarbecovirus reservoir were estimated as 1948 (95% HPD: 1879-1999), 1969 (95% HPD: 1930-2000), and 1982 (95% HPD: 1948-2009). Despite intensified characterization of sarbecoviruses since SARS, the lineage giving rise to SARS-CoV-2 has been circulating unnoticed for decades in bats and been transmitted to other hosts such as pangolins. The occurrence of a third significant coronavirus emergence in 17 years together with the high prevalence and virus diversity in bats implies that these viruses are likely to cross species boundaries again.

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