The pandemic coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 threatens public health worldwide. The viral spike protein mediates SARS-CoV-2 entry into host cells and harbors a S1/S2 cleavage site containing multiple arginine residues (multibasic) not found in closely related animal coronaviruses. However, the role of this multibasic cleavage site in SARS-CoV-2 infection is unknown. Here, we report that the cellular protease furin cleaves the spike protein at the S1/S2 site and that cleavage is essential for S-protein-mediated cell-cell fusion and entry into human lung cells. Moreover, optimizing the S1/S2 site increased cell-cell, but not virus-cell, fusion, suggesting that the corresponding viral variants might exhibit increased cell-cell spread and potentially altered virulence. Our results suggest that acquisition of a S1/S2 multibasic cleavage site was essential for SARS-CoV-2 infection of humans and identify furin as a potential target for therapeutic intervention.
Keywords: COVID-19; S1/S2; SARS-CoV-2; TMPRSS2; cleavage; entry; furin; membrane fusion; spike.
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