SARS-CoV-2 Infects Endothelial Cells In Vivo and In Vitro

Front Cell Infect Microbiol. 2021 Jul 6;11:701278. doi: 10.3389/fcimb.2021.701278. eCollection 2021.


SARS-CoV-2 infection can cause fatal inflammatory lung pathology, including thrombosis and increased pulmonary vascular permeability leading to edema and hemorrhage. In addition to the lung, cytokine storm-induced inflammatory cascade also affects other organs. SARS-CoV-2 infection-related vascular inflammation is characterized by endotheliopathy in the lung and other organs. Whether SARS-CoV-2 causes endotheliopathy by directly infecting endothelial cells is not known and is the focus of the present study. We observed 1) the co-localization of SARS-CoV-2 with the endothelial cell marker CD31 in the lungs of SARS-CoV-2-infected mice expressing hACE2 in the lung by intranasal delivery of adenovirus 5-hACE2 (Ad5-hACE2 mice) and non-human primates at both the protein and RNA levels, and 2) SARS-CoV-2 proteins in endothelial cells by immunogold labeling and electron microscopic analysis. We also detected the co-localization of SARS-CoV-2 with CD31 in autopsied lung tissue obtained from patients who died from severe COVID-19. Comparative analysis of RNA sequencing data of the lungs of infected Ad5-hACE2 and Ad5-empty (control) mice revealed upregulated KRAS signaling pathway, a well-known pathway for cellular activation and dysfunction. Further, we showed that SARS-CoV-2 directly infects mature mouse aortic endothelial cells (AoECs) that were activated by performing an aortic sprouting assay prior to exposure to SARS-CoV-2. This was demonstrated by co-localization of SARS-CoV-2 and CD34 by immunostaining and detection of viral particles in electron microscopic studies. Moreover, the activated AoECs became positive for ACE-2 but not quiescent AoECs. Together, our results indicate that in addition to pneumocytes, SARS-CoV-2 also directly infects mature vascular endothelial cells in vivo and ex vivo, which may contribute to cardiovascular complications in SARS-CoV-2 infection, including multipleorgan failure.

Keywords: SARS-CoV-2; animal models; aorta ring; endothelial cell infection; hACE2.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • COVID-19*
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Endothelial Cells
  • Humans
  • Lung
  • Mice
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • SARS-CoV-2*