Despite an unprecedented global research effort on SARS-CoV-2, early replication events remain poorly understood. Given the clinical importance of emergent viral variants with increased transmission, there is an urgent need to understand the early stages of viral replication and transcription. We used single-molecule fluorescence in situ hybridisation (smFISH) to quantify positive sense RNA genomes with 95% detection efficiency, while simultaneously visualising negative sense genomes, subgenomic RNAs, and viral proteins. Our absolute quantification of viral RNAs and replication factories revealed that SARS-CoV-2 genomic RNA is long-lived after entry, suggesting that it avoids degradation by cellular nucleases. Moreover, we observed that SARS-CoV-2 replication is highly variable between cells, with only a small cell population displaying high burden of viral RNA. Unexpectedly, the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the UK, exhibits significantly slower replication kinetics than the Victoria strain, suggesting a novel mechanism contributing to its higher transmissibility with important clinical implications.
eLife Sciences Publications, Ltd