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Characterization of intrinsic and effective fitness changes caused by temporarily fixed mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 spike E484 epitope and identification of an epistatic precondition for the evolution of E484A in variant Omicron.

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Schröder, Simon 
Richter, Anja 
Veith, Talitha 
Emanuel, Jackson 
Gudermann, Luca 


BACKGROUND: Intrinsic fitness costs are likely to have guided the selection of lineage-determining mutations during emergence of variants of SARS-CoV-2. Whereas changes in receptor affinity and antibody neutralization have been thoroughly mapped for individual mutations in spike, their influence on intrinsic replicative fitness remains understudied. METHODS: We analyzed mutations in immunodominant spike epitope E484 that became temporarily fixed over the pandemic. We engineered the resulting immune escape mutations E484K, -A, and -Q in recombinant SARS-CoV-2. We characterized viral replication, entry, and competitive fitness with and without immune serum from humans with defined exposure/vaccination history and hamsters monospecifically infected with the E484K variant. We additionally engineered a virus containing the Omicron signature mutations N501Y and Q498R that were predicted to epistatically enhance receptor binding. RESULTS: Multistep growth kinetics in Vero-, Calu-3, and NCI-H1299 were identical between viruses. Synchronized entry experiments based on cold absorption and temperature shift identified only an insignificant trend toward faster entry of the E484K variant. Competitive passage experiments revealed clear replicative fitness differences. In absence of immune serum, E484A and E484Q, but not E484K, were replaced by wildtype (WT) in competition assays. In presence of immune serum, all three mutants outcompeted WT. Decreased E484A fitness levels were over-compensated for by N501Y and Q498R, identifying a putative Omicron founder background that exceeds the intrinsic and effective fitness of WT and matches that of E484K. Critically, the E484A/Q498R/N501Y mutant and E484K have equal fitness also in presence of pre-Omicron vaccinee serum, whereas the fitness gain by E484K is lost in the presence of serum raised against the E484K variant in hamsters. CONCLUSIONS: The emergence of E484A and E484Q prior to widespread population immunity may have been limited by fitness costs. In populations already exposed to the early immune escape epitope E484K, the Omicron founder background may have provided a basis for alternative immune escape evolution via E484A. Studies of major antigenic epitope changes with and without their epistatic context help reconstruct the sequential adjustments of intrinsic fitness versus neutralization escape during the evolution of major SARS-CoV-2 variants in an increasingly immune human population.


Acknowledgements: We gratefully acknowledge all data contributors, i.e., the authors and their originating laboratories responsible for obtaining the specimens, and their submitting laboratories for generating the genetic sequence and metadata and sharing via the GISAID Initiative, on which this research is partly based.

Funder: Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin (3093)


Antibody neutralization escape, COVID-19, Epitope E484, Reverse genetics, SARS-CoV-2, Spike protein evolution, Virus fitness, Animals, Cricetinae, Humans, Epitopes, SARS-CoV-2, COVID-19, Mutation, Immune Sera, Immunodominant Epitopes, Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus, Antibodies, Neutralizing

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Virol J

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Springer Science and Business Media LLC