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The SARS-CoV-2 multibasic cleavage site facilitates early serine protease-mediated entry into organoid-derived human airway cells

By Anna Z. Mykytyn, Tim I. Breugem, Samra Riesebosch, Debby Schipper, Petra B van den Doel, Robbert J. Rottier, Mart M. Lamers, Bart L. Haagmans

Posted 07 Sep 2020
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.09.07.286120

After the SARS-CoV outbreak in 2003, a second zoonotic coronavirus named SARS-CoV-2, emerged late 2019 in China and rapidly caused the COVID-19 pandemic leading to a public health crisis of an unprecedented scale. Despite the fact that SARS-CoV-2 uses the same receptor as SARS-CoV, transmission and pathogenesis of both viruses seem to be quite distinct. A remarkable feature of the SARS-CoV-2 spike is the presence of a multibasic cleavage site, which is absent in the SARS-CoV spike. The viral spike protein not only attaches to the entry receptor, but also mediates fusion after cleavage by host proteases. Here, we report that the SARS-CoV-2 spike multibasic cleavage site increases infectivity on differentiated organoid-derived human airway cells. Compared with SARS-CoV, SARS-CoV-2 entered faster into the lung cell line Calu-3, and more frequently formed syncytial cells in differentiated organoid-derived human airway cells. Moreover, the multibasic cleavage site increased entry speed and plasma membrane serine protease usage relative to endosomal entry using cathepsins. Blocking serine protease activity using the clinically approved drug camostat mesylate effectively inhibited SARS-CoV-2 entry and replication in differentiated organoid-derived human airway cells. Our findings provide novel information on how SARS-CoV-2 enters relevant airway cells and highlight serine proteases as an attractive antiviral target. Significance Statement Highly pathogenic coronaviruses have spilled from animals to humans three times in the past two decades. Late 2019, SARS-CoV-2 emerged in China and was declared a pandemic by March 2020. The other two highly pathogenic coronaviruses, SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, emerged in 2002 and 2012, respectively, but did not attain sustained human-to-human transmission. Given the high diversity of coronaviruses in animals, urbanization and increased air travel, future coronavirus pandemics are likely to occur intermittently. Identifying which factors determine pandemic potential and pathogenicity are therefore of key importance to global health. Additionally, there is an urgent need to rapidly translate fundamental knowledge to the clinic, a process that is expedited through the use of relevant cell culture systems. ### Competing Interest Statement The authors have declared no competing interest.

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