SARS-CoV-2 spike protein induces inflammation via TLR2-dependent activation of the NF-κB pathway

bioRxiv. 2021 Mar 17;2021.03.16.435700. doi: 10.1101/2021.03.16.435700. Preprint


Pathogenesis of COVID-19 is associated with a hyperinflammatory response; however, the precise mechanism of SARS-CoV-2-induced inflammation is poorly understood. Here we investigated direct inflammatory functions of major structural proteins of SARS-CoV-2. We observed that spike (S) protein potently induces inflammatory cytokines and chemokines including IL-6, IL-1ß, TNFa, CXCL1, CXCL2, and CCL2, but not IFNs in human and mouse macrophages. No such inflammatory response was observed in response to membrane (M), envelope (E), and neucleocapsid (N) proteins. When stimulated with extracellular S protein, human lung epithelial cells A549 also produce inflammatory cytokines and chemokines. Interestingly, epithelial cells expressing S protein intracellularly are non-inflammatory, but elicit an inflammatory response in macrophages when co-cultured. Biochemical studies revealed that S protein triggers inflammation via activation of the NF-κB pathway in a MyD88-dependent manner. Further, such an activation of the NF-κB pathway is abrogated in Tlr2-deficient macrophages. Consistently, administration of S protein induces IL-6, TNF-a, and IL-1 ß in wild-type, but not Tlr2-deficient mice. Together these data reveal a mechanism for the cytokine storm during SARS-CoV-2 infection and suggest that TLR2 could be a potential therapeutic target for COVID-19.

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