The impact of cross-reactive immunity on the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants

Robin N. Thompson*, Emma Southall, Yair Daon, Francesca A. Lovell-Read, Shingo Iwami, Craig P. Thompson, Uri Obolski

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Introduction: A key feature of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants with different transmission characteristics. However, when a novel variant arrives in a host population, it will not necessarily lead to many cases. Instead, it may fade out, due to stochastic effects and the level of immunity in the population. Immunity against novel SARS-CoV-2 variants may be influenced by prior exposures to related viruses, such as other SARS-CoV-2 variants and seasonal coronaviruses, and the level of cross-reactive immunity conferred by those exposures. Methods: Here, we investigate the impact of cross-reactive immunity on the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants in a simplified scenario in which a novel SARS-CoV-2 variant is introduced after an antigenically related virus has spread in the population. We use mathematical modelling to explore the risk that the novel variant invades the population and causes a large number of cases, as opposed to fading out with few cases. Results: We find that, if cross-reactive immunity is complete (i.e. someone infected by the previously circulating virus is not susceptible to the novel variant), the novel variant must be more transmissible than the previous virus to invade the population. However, in a more realistic scenario in which cross-reactive immunity is partial, we show that it is possible for novel variants to invade, even if they are less transmissible than previously circulating viruses. This is because partial cross-reactive immunity effectively increases the pool of susceptible hosts that are available to the novel variant compared to complete cross-reactive immunity. Furthermore, if previous infection with the antigenically related virus assists the establishment of infection with the novel variant, as has been proposed following some experimental studies, then even variants with very limited transmissibility are able to invade the host population. Discussion: Our results highlight that fast assessment of the level of cross-reactive immunity conferred by related viruses against novel SARS-CoV-2 variants is an essential component of novel variant risk assessments.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1049458
JournalFrontiers in Immunology
StatePublished - 11 Jan 2023


  • COVID-19
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • cross-reactive immunity
  • emergence
  • infectious disease epidemiology
  • mathematical modelling
  • variants


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