Nature Communications

Possible future waves of SARS-CoV-2 infection generated by variants of concern with a range of characteristics

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Viral reproduction of SARS-CoV-2 provides opportunities for the acquisition of advantageous mutations, altering viral transmissibility, disease severity, and/or allowing escape from natural or vaccine-derived immunity. We use three mathematical models: a parsimonious deterministic model with homogeneous mixing; an age-structured model; and a stochastic importation model to investigate the effect of potential variants of concern (VOCs). Calibrating to the situation in England in May 2021, we find epidemiological trajectories for putative VOCs are wide-ranging and dependent on their transmissibility, immune escape capability, and the introduction timing of a postulated VOC-targeted vaccine. We demonstrate that a VOC with a substantial transmission advantage over resident variants, or with immune escape properties, can generate a wave of infections and hospitalisations comparable to the winter 2020-2021 wave. Moreover, a variant that is less transmissible, but shows partial immune-escape could provoke a wave of infection that would not be revealed until control measures are further relaxed.