SARS-CoV-2 growth, furin-cleavage-site adaptation and neutralization using serum from acutely infected, hospitalized COVID-19 patients

bioRxiv. 2020 Jun 22:2020.06.19.154930. doi: 10.1101/2020.06.19.154930. Preprint


SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19, emerged at the end of 2019 and by mid-June 2020, the virus has spread to at least 215 countries, caused more than 8,000,000 confirmed infections and over 450,000 deaths, and overwhelmed healthcare systems worldwide. Like SARS-CoV, which emerged in 2002 and caused a similar disease, SARS-CoV-2 is a betacoronavirus. Both viruses use human angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (hACE2) as a receptor to enter cells. However, the SARS-CoV-2 spike (S) glycoprotein has a novel insertion that generates a putative furin cleavage signal and this has been postulated to expand the host range. Two low passage (P) strains of SARS-CoV-2 (Wash1: P4 and Munich: P1) were cultured twice in Vero-E6 cells and characterized virologically. Sanger and MinION sequencing demonstrated significant deletions in the furin cleavage signal of Wash1: P6 and minor variants in the Munich: P3 strain. Cleavage of the S glycoprotein in SARS-CoV-2-infected Vero-E6 cell lysates was inefficient even when an intact furin cleavage signal was present. Indirect immunofluorescence demonstrated the S glycoprotein reached the cell surface. Since the S protein is a major antigenic target for the development of neutralizing antibodies we investigated the development of neutralizing antibody titers in serial serum samples obtained from COVID-19 human patients. These were comparable regardless of the presence of an intact or deleted furin cleavage signal. These studies illustrate the need to characterize virus stocks meticulously prior to performing either in vitro or in vivo pathogenesis studies.

Publication types

  • Preprint