Acquisition of Furin Cleavage Site and Further SARS-CoV-2 Evolution Change the Mechanisms of Viral Entry, Infection Spread, and Cell Signaling.J Virol. 2022 08 10; 96(15):e0075322.JV
Circulation of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in the human population leads to further viral evolution. The new variants that arise during this evolution are more infectious. Our data suggest that newer variants have shifted from utilizing both cathepsin/endosome- and TMPRSS2-mediated entry mechanisms to rely on a TMPRSS2-dependent entry pathway. Accordingly, only the early lineages of SARS-CoV-2 are capable of infecting and forming syncytia in Vero/ACE2 cells which lack TMPRSS2 expression. The presence of an intact multibasic furin cleavage site (FCS) in the S protein was a key requirement for cell-to-cell fusion. Deletion of FCS makes SARS-CoV-2 more infectious in vitro but renders it incapable of syncytium formation. Cell-to-cell fusion likely represents an alternative means of virus spread and is resistant to the presence of high levels of neutralizing monoclonal antibodies (MAbs) and immune sera in the media. In this study, we also noted that cells infected with SARS-CoV-2 with an intact FCS or alphavirus replicon expressing S protein (VEErep/S) released high levels of free S1 subunit. The released S1 is capable of activating the TLR4 receptor and inducing a pro-inflammatory response. Thus, S1 activation of TLR4 may be an important contributor to SARS-CoV-2-induced COVID-19 disease and needs to be considered in the design of COVID mRNA vaccines. Lastly, a VEErep/S-replicon was shown to produce large amounts of infectious, syncytium-forming pseudoviruses and thus could represent alternative experimental system for screening inhibitors of virus entry and syncytium formation. IMPORTANCE The results of this study demonstrate that the late lineages of SARS-CoV-2 evolved to more efficient use of the TMPRSS2-mediated entry pathway and gradually lost an ability to employ the cathepsins/endosome-mediated entry. The acquisition of a furin cleavage site (FCS) by SARS-CoV-2-specific S protein made the virus a potent producer of syncytia. Their formation is also determined by expression of ACE2 and TMPRSS2 and is resistant to neutralizing human MAbs and immune sera. Syncytium formation appears to be an alternative means of infection spread following the development of an adaptive immune response. Cells infected with SARS-CoV-2 with an intact FCS secrete high levels of the S1 subunit. The released S1 demonstrates an ability to activate the TLR4 receptor and induce pro-inflammatory cytokines, which represent a hallmark of SARS-CoV-2 pathogenesis. Alphavirus replicons encoding SARS-CoV-2 S protein cause spreading, syncytium-forming infection, and they can be applied as an experimental tool for studying the mechanism of syncytium formation.