The B.1.1.7 lineage of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has caused fast-spreading outbreaks globally. Intrinsically, this variant has greater transmissibility than its predecessors, but this capacity has been amplified in some circumstances to tragic effect by a combination of human behavior and local immunity. What are the extrinsic factors that help or hinder the rapid dissemination of variants? Kraemer et al. explored the invasion dynamics of B.1.1.7. in fine detail, from its location of origin in Kent, UK, to its heterogenous spread around the country. A combination of mobile phone and virus data including more than 17,000 genomes shows how distinct phases of dispersal were related to intensity of mobility and the timing of lockdowns. As the local outbreaks grew, importation from the London source area became less important. Had B.1.1.7. emerged at a slightly different time of year, its impact might have been different. —CA
Disentangling the factors that contribute to the rapid spread of virus variants is essential for understanding their epidemiological consequences.
Understanding the causes and consequences of the emergence of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) variants of concern is crucial to pandemic control yet difficult to achieve because they arise in the context of variable human behavior and immunity. We investigated the spatial invasion dynamics of lineage B.1.1.7 by jointly analyzing UK human mobility, virus genomes, and community-based polymerase chain reaction data. We identified a multistage spatial invasion process in which early B.1.1.7 growth rates were associated with mobility and asymmetric lineage export from a dominant source location, enhancing the effects of B.1.1.7’s increased intrinsic transmissibility. We further explored how B.1.1.7 spread was shaped by nonpharmaceutical interventions and spatial variation in previous attack rates. Our findings show that careful accounting of the behavioral and epidemiological context within which variants of concern emerge is necessary to interpret correctly their observed relative growth rates.