Variant Analysis of SARS-CoV-2 Genomes from Belgian Military Personnel Engaged in Overseas Missions and Operations

Published in Viruses, 2021

Pirnay JP, Selhorst P, Hong SL, Cochez C, Potter B, Maes P, Petrillo M, Dudas G, Claes V, Van der Beken Y, Verbeken G, Degueldre J, Dellicour S, Cuypers L, T'Sas F, Van den Eede G, Verhasselt B, Weuts W, Smets C, Mertens J, Geeraerts P, Ariën KK, André E, Neirinckx P, Soentjens P, Baele G, 2021. "Variant Analysis of SARS-CoV-2 Genomes from Belgian Military Personnel Engaged in Overseas Missions and Operations". Viruses 13(7): 1359.

Abstract

More than a year after the first identification of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) as the causative agent of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in China, the emergence and spread of genomic variants of this virus through travel raise concerns regarding the introduction of lineages in previously unaffected regions, requiring adequate containment strategies. Concomitantly, such introductions fuel worries about a possible increase in transmissibility and disease severity, as well as a possible decrease in vaccine efficacy. Military personnel are frequently deployed on missions around the world. As part of a COVID-19 risk mitigation strategy, Belgian Armed Forces that engaged in missions and operations abroad were screened (7683 RT-qPCR tests), pre- and post-mission, for the presence of SARS-CoV-2, including the identification of viral lineages. Nine distinct viral genotypes were identified in soldiers returning from operations in Niger, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, and Mali. The SARS-CoV-2 variants belonged to major clades 19B, 20A, and 20B (Nextstrain nomenclature), and included “variant of interest” B.1.525, “variant under monitoring” A.27, as well as lineages B.1.214, B.1, B.1.1.254, and A (pangolin nomenclature), some of which are internationally monitored due to the specific mutations they harbor. Through contact tracing and phylogenetic analysis, we show that isolation and testing policies implemented by the Belgian military command appear to have been successful in containing the influx and transmission of these distinct SARS-CoV-2 variants into military and civilian populations.