Spike Protein Cleavage-Activation in the Context of the SARS-CoV-2 P681R Mutation: an Analysis from Its First Appearance in Lineage A.23.1 Identified in Uganda.Microbiol Spectr. 2022 08 31; 10(4):e0151422.MS
Based on its predicted ability to affect transmissibility and pathogenesis, surveillance studies have highlighted the role of a specific mutation (P681R) in the S1/S2 furin cleavage site of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. Here we analyzed A.23.1, first identified in Uganda, as a P681R-containing virus several months prior to the emergence of B.1.617.2 (Delta variant). We performed assays using peptides mimicking the S1/S2 from A.23.1 and B.1.617 and observed significantly increased cleavability with furin compared to both an original B lineage (Wuhan-Hu1) and B.1.1.7 (Alpha variant). We also performed cell-cell fusion and functional infectivity assays using pseudotyped particles and observed an increase in activity for A.23.1 compared to an original B lineage spike. However, these changes in activity were not reproduced in the B lineage spike bearing only the P681R substitution. Our findings suggest that while A.23.1 has increased furin-mediated cleavage linked to the P681R substitution, this substitution needs to occur on the background of other spike protein changes to enable its functional consequences. IMPORTANCE During the course of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, viral variants have emerged that often contain notable mutations in the spike gene. Mutations that encode changes in the spike S1/S2 (furin) activation site have been considered especially impactful. The S1/S2 change from proline to arginine at position 681 (P681R) first emerged in the A.23.1 variant in Uganda, and subsequently occurred in the more widely transmitted Delta variant. We show that the A.23.1 spike is more readily activated by the host cell protease furin, but that this is not reproduced in an original SARS-CoV-2 spike containing the P681R mutation. Changes to the S1/S2 (furin) activation site play a role in SARS-CoV-2 infection and spread, but successful viruses combine these mutations with other less well identified changes, occurring as part of natural selection.