Baseline Sequencing Surveillance of Public Clinical Testing, Hospitals, and Community Wastewater Reveals Rapid Emergence of SARS-CoV-2 Omicron Variant of Concern in Arizona, USA.mBio. 2023 02 28; 14(1):e0310122.MBIO
The adaptive evolution of SARS-CoV-2 variants is driven by selection for increased viral fitness in transmissibility and immune evasion. Understanding the dynamics of how an emergent variant sweeps across populations can better inform public health response preparedness for future variants. Here, we investigated the state-level genomic epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 through baseline genomic sequencing surveillance of 27,071 public testing specimens and 1,125 hospital inpatient specimens diagnosed between November 1, 2021, and January 31, 2022, in Arizona. We found that the Omicron variant rapidly displaced Delta variant in December 2021, leading to an "Omicron surge" of COVID-19 cases in early 2022. Wastewater sequencing surveillance of 370 samples supported the synchronous sweep of Omicron in the community. Hospital inpatient COVID-19 cases of Omicron variant presented to three major hospitals 10.51 days after its detection from public clinical testing. Nonsynonymous mutations in nsp3, nsp12, and nsp13 genes were significantly associated with Omicron hospital cases compared to community cases. To model SARS-CoV-2 transmissions across the state population, we developed a scalable sequence network methodology and showed that the Omicron variant spread through intracounty and intercounty transmissions. Finally, we demonstrated that the temporal emergence of Omicron BA.1 to become the dominant variant (17.02 days) was 2.3 times faster than the prior Delta variant (40.70 days) or subsequent Omicron sublineages BA.2 (39.65 days) and BA.5 (35.38 days). Our results demonstrate the uniquely rapid sweep of Omicron BA.1. These findings highlight how integrated public health surveillance can be used to enhance preparedness and response to future variants. IMPORTANCE SARS-CoV-2 continues to evolve new variants throughout the pandemic. However, the temporal dynamics of how SARS-CoV-2 variants emerge to become the dominant circulating variant is not precisely known. Genomic sequencing surveillance offers unique insights into how SARS-CoV-2 spreads in communities and the lead-up to hospital cases during a surge. Specifically, baseline sequencing surveillance through random selection of positive diagnostic specimens provides a representative outlook of the virus lineages circulating in a geographic region. Here, we investigated the emergence of the Omicron variant of concern in Arizona by leveraging baseline genomic sequence surveillance of public clinical testing, hospitals, and community wastewater. We tracked the spread and evolution of the Omicron variant as it first emerged in the general public, and its rapid shift in hospital admissions in the state health system. This study demonstrates the timescale of public health preparedness needed to respond to an antigenic shift in SARS-CoV-2.