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In BMJ health & care informatics

OBJECTIVES : The objective of this study is the implementation of an automatic procedure to weekly detect new SARS-CoV-2 variants and non-neutral variants (variants of concern (VOC) and variants of interest (VOI)).

METHODS : We downloaded spike protein primary sequences from the public resource GISAID and we represented each sequence as k-mer counts. For each week since 1 July 2020, we evaluate if each sequence represents an anomaly based on a One Class support vector machine (SVM) classification algorithm trained on neutral protein sequences collected from February to June 2020.

RESULTS : We assess the ability of the One Class classifier to detect known VOC and VOI, such as Alpha, Delta or Omicron, ahead of their official classification by health authorities. In median, the classifier predicts a non-neutral variant as outlier 10 weeks before the official date of designation as VOC/VOI.

DISCUSSION : The identification of non-neutral variants during a pandemic usually relies on indicators available during time, such as changing population size of a variant. Automatic variant surveillance systems based on protein sequences can enhance the fast identification of variants of potential concern.

CONCLUSION : Machine learning, and in particular One Class SVM classification, can support the detection of potentially VOC/VOI variants during an evolving pandemics.

Nicora Giovanna, Salemi Marco, Marini Simone, Bellazzi Riccardo


COVID-19, data science, machine learning, public health informatics