We aimed to investigate novel emerging severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) lineages in Japan that harbor variants in the spike protein receptor-binding domain (RBD). The total nucleic acid contents of samples from 159 patients with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) were subjected to whole genome sequencing. The SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences from these patients were examined for variants in spike protein RBD. In January 2021, three family members (one aged in their 40s and two aged under 10 years old) were found to be infected with SARS-CoV-2 harboring W152L/E484K/G769V mutations. These three patients were living in Japan and had no history of traveling abroad. After identifying these cases, we developed a TaqMan assay to screen for the above hallmark mutations and identified an additional 14 patients with the same mutations. The associated virus strain was classified into the GR clade (Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data [GISAID]), 20B clade (Nextstrain), and R.1 lineage (Phylogenetic Assignment of Named Global Outbreak [PANGO] Lineages). As of April 22, 2021, R.1 lineage SARS-CoV-2 has been identified in 2,388 SARS-CoV-2 entries in the GISAID database, many of which were from Japan (38.2%; 913/2,388) and the United States (47.1%; 1,125/2,388). Compared with that in the United States, the percentage of SARS-CoV-2 isolates belonging to the R.1 lineage in Japan increased more rapidly over the period from October 24, 2020 to April 18, 2021. R.1 lineage SARS-CoV-2 has potential escape mutations in the spike protein RBD (E484K) and N-terminal domain (W152L); therefore, it will be necessary to continue to monitor the R.1 lineage as it spreads around the world.
A novel coronavirus, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), emerged in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. SARS-CoV-2 had evolved and spread around the world, threatening human life. Several mutations, which alter the viral fitness, virulence, and transmissibility, were identified in SARS-CoV-2. Here, we detected R.1 lineage SARS-CoV-2 harboring mutations in spike protein. The R.1 lineage have spread at the beginning of 2021 in Japan. This lineage has potential escape mutations in the spike protein receptor-binding domain (E484K) and N-terminal domain (W152L). We also developed a novel TaqMan assay targeting the hallmark mutations occurring in the spike proteins of R.1 lineage for screening. Our data indicate that emergent variants are dominated by the natural selection and need to be monitored by genomic epidemiological research.