Defining the unique properties of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) protein sequences has potential to explain the range of Coronavirus Disease 2019 severity. To achieve this we compared proteins encoded by all Sarbecoviruses using profile Hidden Markov Model similarities to identify protein features unique to SARS-CoV-2. Consistent with previous reports, a small set of bat- and pangolin-derived Sarbecoviruses show the greatest similarity to SARS-CoV-2 but are unlikely to be the direct source of SARS-CoV-2. Three proteins (nsp3, spike, and orf9) showed regions differing between the bat Sarbecoviruses and SARS-CoV-2 and indicate virus protein features that might have evolved to support human infection and/or transmission. Spike analysis identified all regions of the protein that have tolerated change and revealed that the current SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern have sampled only a fraction (∼31 per cent) of the possible spike domain changes which have occurred historically in Sarbecovirus evolution. This result emphasises the evolvability of these coronaviruses and the potential for further change in virus replication and transmission properties over the coming years.


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Cotten, M., Robertson, D. & Phan, M. 2021, 'Unique protein features of SARS-CoV-2 relative to other Sarbecoviruses', Virus Evolution, 7(2), article no: veab067. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ve/veab067

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Last updated: 16 June 2022
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