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Genomic and Virological Characterization of SARS-CoV-2 Variants in a Subset of Unvaccinated and Vaccinated U.S. Military Personnel


The emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants complicates efforts to control the COVID-19 pandemic. Increasing genomic surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 is imperative for early detection of emerging variants, to trace the movement of variants, and to monitor effectiveness of countermeasures. Additionally, determining the amount of viable virus present in clinical samples is helpful to better understand the impact these variants have on viral shedding. In this study, we analyzed nasal swab samples collected between March 2020 and early November 2021 from a cohort of United States (U.S.) military personnel and healthcare system beneficiaries stationed worldwide as a part of the Defense Health Agency (DHA) Global Emerging Infections Surveillance (GEIS) program. SARS-CoV-2 quantitative real time reverse-transcription PCR (qRT-PCR) positive samples were characterized by next-generation sequencing and a subset was analyzed for isolation and quantification of viable virus. Not surprisingly, we found that the Delta variant is the predominant strain circulating among U.S. military personnel beginning in July 2021 and primarily represents cases of vaccine breakthrough infections (VBIs). Among VBIs, we found a 50-fold increase in viable virus in nasal swab samples from Delta variant cases when compared to cases involving other variants. Notably, we found a 40-fold increase in viable virus in nasal swab samples from VBIs involving Delta as compared to unvaccinated personnel infected with other variants prior to the availability of approved vaccines. This study provides important insight about the genomic and virological characterization of SARS-CoV-2 isolates from a unique study population with a global presence.

Competing Interest Statement

The authors have declared no competing interest.

Funding Statement

This study was supported by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Division (AFHSD), Global Emerging Infections Surveillance (GEIS) Branch, ProMIS IDs P0013_AH_01.01, P0166_20_NM, P0093_21_NM, and P0199_21_NM to KABL as well as Navy Work Unit Number (WUN) A1417.

Author Declarations

I confirm all relevant ethical guidelines have been followed, and any necessary IRB and/or ethics committee approvals have been obtained.


The details of the IRB/oversight body that provided approval or exemption for the research described are given below:

IRB of Naval Medical Research Center gave ethical approval for this work.

I confirm that all necessary patient/participant consent has been obtained and the appropriate institutional forms have been archived, and that any patient/participant/sample identifiers included were not known to anyone (e.g., hospital staff, patients or participants themselves) outside the research group so cannot be used to identify individuals.


I understand that all clinical trials and any other prospective interventional studies must be registered with an ICMJE-approved registry, such as I confirm that any such study reported in the manuscript has been registered and the trial registration ID is provided (note: if posting a prospective study registered retrospectively, please provide a statement in the trial ID field explaining why the study was not registered in advance).


I have followed all appropriate research reporting guidelines and uploaded the relevant EQUATOR Network research reporting checklist(s) and other pertinent material as supplementary files, if applicable.


Paper in collection COVID-19 SARS-CoV-2 preprints from medRxiv and bioRxiv

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