Endothelial cell damage is the central part of COVID-19 and a mouse model induced by injection of the S1 subunit of the spike protein

Ann Diagn Pathol. 2021 Apr:51:151682. doi: 10.1016/j.anndiagpath.2020.151682. Epub 2020 Dec 24.


Neurologic complications of symptomatic COVID-19 are common. Brain tissues from 13 autopsies of people who died of COVID-19 were examined. Cultured endothelial and neuronal cells were incubated with and wild type mice were injected IV with different spike subunits. In situ analyses were used to detect SARS-CoV-2 proteins and the host response. In 13/13 brains from fatal COVID-19, pseudovirions (spike, envelope, and membrane proteins without viral RNA) were present in the endothelia of microvessels ranging from 0 to 14 positive cells/200× field (mean 4.3). The pseudovirions strongly co-localized with caspase-3, ACE2, IL6, TNFα, and C5b-9. The surrounding neurons demonstrated increased NMDAR2 and neuronal NOS plus decreased MFSD2a and SHIP1 proteins. Tail vein injection of the full length S1 spike subunit in mice led to neurologic signs (increased thirst, stressed behavior) not evident in those injected with the S2 subunit. The S1 subunit localized to the endothelia of microvessels in the mice brain and showed co-localization with caspase-3, ACE2, IL6, TNFα, and C5b-9. The surrounding neurons showed increased neuronal NOS and decreased MFSD2a. It is concluded that ACE2+ endothelial damage is a central part of SARS-CoV2 pathology and may be induced by the spike protein alone. Thus, the diagnostic pathologist can use either hematoxylin and eosin stain or immunohistochemistry for caspase 3 and ACE2 to document the endothelial cell damage of COVID-19.

Keywords: COVID-19; S1 subunit; SARS-CoV-2; Spike protein.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Animals
  • Autopsy / methods
  • COVID-19 / virology*
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Endothelial Cells / metabolism
  • Endothelial Cells / virology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Microvessels / metabolism
  • Microvessels / virology
  • Middle Aged
  • Protein Subunits / metabolism
  • RNA, Viral / genetics
  • SARS-CoV-2 / genetics
  • SARS-CoV-2 / metabolism*
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / genetics
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / metabolism*


  • Protein Subunits
  • RNA, Viral
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus