The key role of Warburg effect in SARS-CoV-2 replication and associated inflammatory response

Biochimie. 2021 Jan:180:169-177. doi: 10.1016/j.biochi.2020.11.010. Epub 2020 Nov 12.


Current mortality due to the Covid-19 pandemic (approximately 1.2 million by November 2020) demonstrates the lack of an effective treatment. As replication of many viruses - including MERS-CoV - is supported by enhanced aerobic glycolysis, we hypothesized that SARS-CoV-2 replication in host cells (especially airway cells) is reliant upon altered glucose metabolism. This metabolism is similar to the Warburg effect well studied in cancer. Counteracting two main pathways (PI3K/AKT and MAPK/ERK signaling) sustaining aerobic glycolysis inhibits MERS-CoV replication and thus, very likely that of SARS-CoV-2, which shares many similarities with MERS-CoV. The Warburg effect appears to be involved in several steps of COVID-19 infection. Once induced by hypoxia, the Warburg effect becomes active in lung endothelial cells, particularly in the presence of atherosclerosis, thereby promoting vasoconstriction and micro thrombosis. Aerobic glycolysis also supports activation of pro-inflammatory cells such as neutrophils and M1 macrophages. As the anti-inflammatory response and reparative process is performed by M2 macrophages reliant on oxidative metabolism, we speculated that the switch to oxidative metabolism in M2 macrophages would not occur at the appropriate time due to an uncontrolled pro-inflammatory cascade. Aging, mitochondrial senescence and enzyme dysfunction, AMPK downregulation and p53 inactivation could all play a role in this key biochemical event. Understanding the role of the Warburg effect in COVID-19 can be essential to developing molecules reducing infectivity, arresting endothelial cells activation and the pro-inflammatory cascade.

Keywords: AMPK; Atherosclerosis; Macrophage; SARS-CoV-2; Warburg effect.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19 / virology*
  • Glycolysis / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Inflammation*
  • Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus / physiology
  • SARS-CoV-2 / physiology*
  • Virus Replication / physiology*