The current coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic is the first to apply whole-genome sequencing near to real time, with over 2 million severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) whole-genome sequences generated and shared through the GISAID platform. This genomic resource informed public health decision-making throughout the pandemic; it also allowed detection of mutations that might affect virulence, pathogenesis, host range or immune escape as well as the effectiveness of SARS-CoV-2 diagnostics and therapeutics. However, genotype-to-phenotype predictions cannot be performed at the rapid pace of genomic sequencing. To prepare for the next phase of the pandemic, a systematic approach is needed to link global genomic surveillance and timely assessment of the phenotypic characteristics of novel variants, which will support the development and updating of diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics and nonpharmaceutical interventions. This Review summarizes the current knowledge on key viral mutations and variants and looks to the next phase of surveillance of the evolving pandemic.