AXL is a candidate receptor for SARS-CoV-2 that promotes infection of pulmonary and bronchial epithelial cells

Cell Res. 2021 Feb;31(2):126-140. doi: 10.1038/s41422-020-00460-y. Epub 2021 Jan 8.


The current coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic presents a global public health challenge. The viral pathogen responsible, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), binds to the host receptor ACE2 through its spike (S) glycoprotein, which mediates membrane fusion and viral entry. Although the role of ACE2 as a receptor for SARS-CoV-2 is clear, studies have shown that ACE2 expression is extremely low in various human tissues, especially in the respiratory tract. Thus, other host receptors and/or co-receptors that promote the entry of SARS-CoV-2 into cells of the respiratory system may exist. In this study, we found that the tyrosine-protein kinase receptor UFO (AXL) specifically interacts with the N-terminal domain of SARS-CoV-2 S. Using both a SARS-CoV-2 virus pseudotype and authentic SARS-CoV-2, we found that overexpression of AXL in HEK293T cells promotes SARS-CoV-2 entry as efficiently as overexpression of ACE2, while knocking out AXL significantly reduces SARS-CoV-2 infection in H1299 pulmonary cells and in human primary lung epithelial cells. Soluble human recombinant AXL blocks SARS-CoV-2 infection in cells expressing high levels of AXL. The AXL expression level is well correlated with SARS-CoV-2 S level in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid cells from COVID-19 patients. Taken together, our findings suggest that AXL is a novel candidate receptor for SARS-CoV-2 which may play an important role in promoting viral infection of the human respiratory system and indicate that it is a potential target for future clinical intervention strategies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bronchi / cytology
  • Bronchi / metabolism
  • COVID-19 / metabolism*
  • Cell Line
  • Humans
  • Lung / cytology
  • Lung / metabolism
  • Models, Molecular
  • Protein Interaction Domains and Motifs
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins / analysis
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins / metabolism*
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases / analysis
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases / metabolism*
  • Respiratory Mucosa / cytology*
  • Respiratory Mucosa / metabolism
  • SARS-CoV-2 / chemistry
  • SARS-CoV-2 / physiology*
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / analysis
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / metabolism*
  • Virus Internalization


  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus
  • spike protein, SARS-CoV-2
  • Receptor Protein-Tyrosine Kinases
  • axl receptor tyrosine kinase