The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) is a lethal zoonotic pathogen circulating in the Arabian Peninsula since 2012. There is no vaccine for MERS and anti-viral treatment is generally not applicable. We investigated the evolution of the MERS-CoV spike gene sequences and changes in viral loads over time from patients in Saudi Arabia from 2015–2017. All the MERS-CoV strains belonged to lineage 5, and showed high sequence homology (99.9%) to 2017 strains. Recombination analysis showed a potential recombination event in study strains from patients in Saudi Arabia. The spike gene showed eight amino acid substitutions, especially between the A1 and B5 lineage, and contained positively selected codon 1020. We also determined that the viral loads were significantly (p
< 0.001) higher in fatal cases, and virus shedding was prolonged in some fatal cases beyond 21 days. The viral concentration peaked during the first week of illness, and the lower respiratory specimens had higher levels of MERS-CoV RNA. The presence of the diversifying selection and the topologies with the structural mapping of residues under purifying selection suggested that codon 1020 might have a role in the evolution of spike gene during the divergence of different lineages. This study will improve our understanding of the evolution of MERS-CoV, and also highlights the need for enhanced surveillance in humans and dromedaries. The presence of amino acid changes at the N-terminal domain and structural mapping of residues under positive selection at heptad repeat 1 provides better insight into the adaptive evolution of the spike gene and might have a potential role in virus-host tropism and pathogenesis.
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