Ferrets were experimentally inoculated with SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)-related coronavirus 2) to assess infection dynamics and host response. During the resulting subclinical infection, viral RNA was monitored between 2 and 21 days post-inoculation (dpi), and reached a peak in the upper respiratory cavity between 4 and 6 dpi. Viral genomic sequence analysis in samples from three animals identified the Y453F nucleotide substitution relative to the inoculum. Viral RNA was also detected in environmental samples, specifically in swabs of ferret fur. Microscopy analysis revealed viral protein and RNA in upper respiratory tract tissues, notably in cells of the respiratory and olfactory mucosae of the nasal turbinates, including olfactory neuronal cells. Antibody responses to the spike and nucleoprotein were detected from 21 dpi, but virus-neutralizing activity was low. A second intranasal inoculation (re-exposure) of two ferrets after a 17-day interval did not produce re-initiation of viral RNA shedding, but did amplify the humoral response in one animal. Therefore, ferrets can be experimentally infected with SARS-CoV-2 to model human asymptomatic infection.
Keywords: SARS-CoV-2; Y453F; ferret; olfactory neuronal cells.