BACKGROUND: Since 2014, England has seen increased scarlet fever activity unprecedented in modern times. In 2016, England's scarlet fever seasonal rise coincided with an unexpected elevation in invasive Streptococcus pyogenes infections. We describe the molecular epidemiological investigation of these events.
METHODS: We analysed changes in S pyogenes emm genotypes, and notifications of scarlet fever and invasive disease in 2014-16 using regional (northwest London) and national (England and Wales) data. Genomes of 135 non-invasive and 552 invasive emm1 isolates from 2009-16 were analysed and compared with 2800 global emm1 sequences. Transcript and protein expression of streptococcal pyrogenic exotoxin A (SpeA; also known as scarlet fever or erythrogenic toxin A) in sequenced, non-invasive emm1 isolates was quantified by real-time PCR and western blot analyses.
FINDINGS: Coincident with national increases in scarlet fever and invasive disease notifications, emm1 S pyogenes upper respiratory tract isolates increased significantly in northwest London in the March to May period, from five (5%) of 96 isolates in 2014, to 28 (19%) of 147 isolates in 2015 (p=0·0021 vs 2014 values), to 47 (33%) of 144 in 2016 (p=0·0080 vs 2015 values). Similarly, invasive emm1 isolates collected nationally in the same period increased from 183 (31%) of 587 in 2015 to 267 (42%) of 637 in 2016 (p<0·0001). Sequences of emm1 isolates from 2009-16 showed emergence of a new emm1 lineage (designated M1UK)-with overlap of pharyngitis, scarlet fever, and invasive M1UK strains-which could be genotypically distinguished from pandemic emm1 isolates (M1global) by 27 single-nucleotide polymorphisms. Median SpeA protein concentration in supernatant was nine-times higher among M1UK isolates (190·2 ng/mL [IQR 168·9-200·4]; n=10) than M1global isolates (20·9 ng/mL [0·0-27·3]; n=10; p<0·0001). M1UK expanded nationally to represent 252 (84%) of all 299 emm1 genomes in 2016. Phylogenetic analysis of published datasets identified single M1UK isolates in Denmark and the USA.
INTERPRETATION: A dominant new emm1 S pyogenes lineage characterised by increased SpeA production has emerged during increased S pyogenes activity in England. The expanded reservoir of M1UK and recognised invasive potential of emm1 S pyogenes provide plausible explanation for the increased incidence of invasive disease, and rationale for global surveillance.
FUNDING: UK Medical Research Council, UK National Institute for Health Research, Wellcome Trust, Rosetrees Trust, Stoneygate Trust.