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Early detection of SARS-CoV-2 variants enables timely tracking of clinically important strains in order to inform the public health response. Current subtype-based variant surveillance depending on prior subtype assignment according to lag features and their continuous risk assessment may delay this process. We proposed a weighted network framework to model the frequency trajectories of mutations (FTMs) for SARS-CoV-2 variant tracing, without requiring prior subtype assignment. This framework modularizes the FTMs and conglomerates synchronous FTMs together to represent the variants. It also generates module clusters to unveil the epidemic stages and their contemporaneous variants. Eventually, the module-based variants are assessed by phylogenetic tree through sub-sampling to facilitate communication and control of the epidemic. This process was benchmarked using worldwide GISAID data, which not only demonstrated all the methodology features but also showed the module-based variant identification had highly specific and sensitive mapping with the global phylogenetic tree. When applying this process to regional data like India and South Africa for SARS-CoV-2 variant surveillance, the approach clearly elucidated the national dispersal history of the viral variants and their co-circulation pattern, and provided much earlier warning of Beta (B.1.351), Delta (B.1.617.2), and Omicron (B.1.1.529). In summary, our work showed that the weighted network modeling of FTMs enables us to rapidly and easily track down SARS-CoV-2 variants overcoming prior viral subtyping with lag features, accelerating the understanding and surveillance of COVID-19.


Copyright © 2022 Huang, Zhang, Bible, Liang, Zheng, Wang, Hao and Liu. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.