Human Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) cases were detected primarily in the Middle East before a major outbreak occurred in South Korea in 2015. The Korean outbreak was initiated by a single infected individual, allowing studies of virus evolution in the absence of further MERS-CoV introduction into human populations. In contrast, MERS is primarily a camel disease on the Arabian Peninsula and in Africa, with clinical disease in humans only in the former location. Previous work identified two mutations in the South Korean MERS-CoV, D510G and I529T on the Spike (S) protein, that led to impaired binding to the receptor. However, whether these mutations affected virulence is unknown. To address this question, we constructed isogenic viruses expressing mutations found in the S protein from Korean isolates and showed that isogenic viruses carrying the Korean MERS-CoV mutations, D510G or I529T, were attenuated in mice, resulting in greater survival, less induction of inflammatory cytokines, and less severe lung injury. In contrast, isogenic viruses expressing S proteins from African isolates were nearly fully virulent; other studies showed that West African camel isolates carry mutations in MERS-CoV accessory proteins, which may limit human transmission. These data indicate that following a single-point introduction of the virus, MERS-CoV S protein evolved rapidly in South Korea to adapt to human populations, with consequences on virulence. In contrast, the mutations in S proteins of African isolates did not change virulence, indicating that S protein variation likely does not play a major role in the lack of camel-to-human transmission in Africa.
Keywords: MERS-CoV; Spike; mutation; virulence.