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biorxiv; 2021.
Preprint in English | bioRxiv | ID: ppzbmed-10.1101.2021.02.03.429670

ABSTRACT

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.

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