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Preprint in English | bioRxiv | ID: ppbiorxiv-431174


Emerging evidence suggests that endothelial activation plays a central role in the pathogenesis of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and multi-organ failure in patients with COVID-19. However, the molecular mechanisms underlying endothelial activation in COVID-19 patients remain unclear. In this study, the SARS-CoV-2 viral proteins that potently activate human endothelial cells were screened to elucidate the molecular mechanisms involved with endothelial activation. It was found that nucleocapsid protein (NP) of SARS-CoV-2 significantly activated human endothelial cells through TLR2/NF-{kappa}B and MAPK signaling pathways. Moreover, by screening a natural microbial compound library containing 154 natural compounds, simvastatin was identified as a potent inhibitor of NP-induced endothelial activation. Remarkablely, though the protein sequences of N proteins from coronaviruses are highly conserved, only NP from SARS-CoV-2 induced endothelial activation. The NPs from other coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV, HUB1-CoV and influenza virus H1N1 did not affect endothelial activation. These findings are well consistent with the results from clinical investigations showing broad endotheliitis and organ injury in severe COVID-19 patients. In conclusion, the study provides insights on SARS-CoV-2-induced vasculopathy and coagulopathy, and suggests that simvastatin, an FDA-approved lipid-lowering drug, may benefit to prevent the pathogenesis and improve the outcome of COVID-19 patients.

Preprint in English | bioRxiv | ID: ppbiorxiv-429670


The novel severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) caused the devastating ongoing coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19) pandemic which poses a great threat to global public health. The spike (S) polypeptide of SARS-CoV-2 consists of the S1 and S2 subunits and is processed by cellular proteases at the S1/S2 boundary. The inclusion of the 4 amino acids (PRRA) at the S1/S2 boundary forms a furin cleavage site (FCS), 682RRAR{downarrow}S686, distinguishing SARS-CoV-2 from its closest relative, the SARS-CoV. Various deletions surrounding the FCS have been identified in patients. When SARS-CoV-2 propagated in Vero cells, the virus acquired various deletions surrounding the FCS. In the present study, we studied the viral transcriptome in SARS-CoV-2 infected primary human airway epithelia (HAE) cultured at an air-liquid interface (ALI) with an emphasis on the viral genome stability at the S1/S2 boundary using RNA-seq. While we found overall the viral transcriptome is similar to that generated from infected Vero cells, we identified a high percentage of mutated viral genome and transcripts in HAE-ALI. Two highly frequent deletions were found at the S1/S2 boundary of the S gene: one is a deletion of 12 amino acids, 678TNSPRRAR{downarrow}SVAS689, which contains the FCS, another is a deletion of 5 amino acids, 675QTQTN679, which is two amino acids upstream of the FCS. Further studies on the dynamics of the FCS deletions in apically released virions revealed that the selective pressure for the FCS maintains the S gene stability in HAE-ALI but with exceptions, in which the FCS deletions are remained at a high rate. Thus, our study presents evidence for the role of unique properties of human airway epithelia in the dynamics of the FCS region during infection of human airways, which is donor-dependent.

Preprint in English | bioRxiv | ID: ppbiorxiv-271130


Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) replicates throughout human airways. The polarized human airway epithelium (HAE) cultured at an airway-liquid interface (HAE-ALI) is an in vitro model mimicking the in vivo human mucociliary airway epithelium and supports the replication of SARS-CoV-2. However, previous studies only characterized short-period SARS-CoV-2 infection in HAE. In this study, continuously monitoring the SARS-CoV-2 infection in HAE-ALI cultures for a long period of up to 51 days revealed that SARS-CoV-2 infection was long lasting with recurrent replication peaks appearing between an interval of approximately 7-10 days, which was consistent in all the tested HAE-ALI cultures derived from 4 lung bronchi of independent donors. We also identified that SARS-CoV-2 does not infect HAE from the basolateral side, and the dominant SARS-CoV-2 permissive epithelial cells are ciliated cells and goblet cells, whereas virus replication in basal cells and club cells was not detectable. Notably, virus infection immediately damaged the HAE, which is demonstrated by dispersed Zonula occludens-1 (ZO-1) expression without clear tight junctions and partial loss of cilia. Importantly, we identified that SARS-CoV-2 productive infection of HAE requires a high viral load of 2.5 x 105 virions per cm2 of epithelium. Thus, our studies highlight the importance of a high viral load and that epithelial renewal initiates and maintains a recurrent infection of HAE with SARS-CoV-2.