The Polybasic Cleavage Site in SARS-CoV-2 Spike Modulates Viral Sensitivity to Type I Interferon and IFITM2

J Virol. 2021 Apr 12;95(9):e02422-20. doi: 10.1128/JVI.02422-20. Print 2021 Apr 12.


The cellular entry of severe acute respiratory syndrome-associated coronaviruses types 1 and 2 (SARS-CoV-1 and -2) requires sequential protease processing of the viral spike glycoprotein. The presence of a polybasic cleavage site in SARS-CoV-2 spike at the S1/S2 boundary has been suggested to be a factor in the increased transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 compared to SARS-CoV-1 by facilitating maturation of the spike precursor by furin-like proteases in the producer cells rather than endosomal cathepsins in the target. We investigate the relevance of the polybasic cleavage site in the route of entry of SARS-CoV-2 and the consequences this has for sensitivity to interferons (IFNs) and, more specifically, the IFN-induced transmembrane (IFITM) protein family that inhibit entry of diverse enveloped viruses. We found that SARS-CoV-2 is restricted predominantly by IFITM2, rather than IFITM3, and the degree of this restriction is governed by route of viral entry. Importantly, removal of the cleavage site in the spike protein renders SARS-CoV-2 entry highly pH and cathepsin dependent in late endosomes, where, like SARS-CoV-1 spike, it is more sensitive to IFITM2 restriction. Furthermore, we found that potent inhibition of SARS-CoV-2 replication by type I but not type II IFNs is alleviated by targeted depletion of IFITM2 expression. We propose that the polybasic cleavage site allows SARS-CoV-2 to mediate viral entry in a pH-independent manner, in part to mitigate against IFITM-mediated restriction and promote replication and transmission. This suggests that therapeutic strategies that target furin-mediated cleavage of SARS-CoV-2 spike may reduce viral replication through the activity of type I IFNs.IMPORTANCE The furin cleavage site in the spike protein is a distinguishing feature of SARS-CoV-2 and has been proposed to be a determinant for the higher transmissibility between individuals, compared to SARS-CoV-1. One explanation for this is that it permits more efficient activation of fusion at or near the cell surface rather than requiring processing in the endosome of the target cell. Here, we show that SARS-CoV-2 is inhibited by antiviral membrane protein IFITM2 and that the sensitivity is exacerbated by deletion of the furin cleavage site, which restricts viral entry to low pH compartments. Furthermore, we find that IFITM2 is a significant effector of the antiviral activity of type I interferons against SARS-CoV-2 replication. We suggest that one role of the furin cleavage site is to reduce SARS-CoV-2 sensitivity to innate immune restriction, and thus, it may represent a potential therapeutic target for COVID-19 treatment development.

Keywords: IFITM2; SARS-CoV-2; furin cleavage; innate immunity; spike; type 1 interferon.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • A549 Cells
  • Humans
  • Interferon Type I / genetics
  • Interferon Type I / metabolism*
  • Membrane Proteins / genetics
  • Membrane Proteins / metabolism*
  • Proteolysis*
  • SARS-CoV-2 / physiology*
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / genetics
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / metabolism*
  • Virus Internalization*
  • Virus Replication*


  • IFITM2 protein, human
  • Interferon Type I
  • Membrane Proteins
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus
  • spike protein, SARS-CoV-2