Effects of Spike Mutations in SARS-CoV-2 Variants of Concern on Human or Animal ACE2-Mediated Virus Entry and Neutralization

bioRxiv. 2021 Aug 25;2021.08.25.457627. doi: 10.1101/2021.08.25.457627. Preprint


SARS-CoV-2 is a zoonotic agent capable of infecting humans and a wide range of animal species. Over the duration of the pandemic, mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein (S) have arisen in circulating viral populations, culminating in the spread of several variants of concern (VOC) with varying degrees of altered virulence, transmissibility, and neutralizing antibody escape. In this study, we employed lentivirus-based pseudotyped viruses that express specific SARS-CoV-2 S protein substitutions and cell lines that stably express ACE2 from nine different animal species to gain insights into the effects of VOC mutations on viral entry and antibody neutralization capability. All animal ACE2 receptors tested, except mink, support viral cell entry for pseudoviruses expressing the parental (prototype Wuhan-1) S at levels comparable to human ACE2. Most single S substitutions (e.g., 452R, 478K, 501Y) did not significantly change virus entry, although 614G and 484K resulted in a decreased efficiency in viral entry. Conversely, combinatorial VOC substitutions in the S protein were associated with significantly increased entry capacity of pseudotyped viruses compared to that of the parental Wuhan-1 pseudotyped virus. Similarly, infection studies using live ancestral (USA-WA1/2020), Alpha, and Beta SARS-CoV-2 viruses in hamsters revealed a higher replication potential for the Beta variant compared to the ancestral prototype virus. Moreover, neutralizing titers in sera from various animal species, including humans, were significantly reduced by single substitutions of 484K or 452R, double substitutions of 501Y-484K, 452R-484K and 452R-478K and the triple substitution of 501Y-484K-417N, suggesting that 484K and 452R are particularly important for evading neutralizing antibodies in human, cat, and rabbit sera. Cumulatively, this study reveals important insights into the host range of SARS-CoV-2 and the effect of recently emergent S protein substitutions on viral entry, virus replication and antibody-mediated viral neutralization.

Author summary: Cells stably expressing ACE2 from various animals and a lentivirus-based SARS-CoV-2 pseudotyped virus assay were established to study SARS-CoV-2 cell entry. The results demonstrated that ACE2 from a wide range of animal species facilitate S-mediated virus entry into cells, which is supported by in silico data as well as natural and experimental infection studies. Pseudotyped viruses containing mutations in the RBD of S representative of the Alpha, Gamma, and especially Beta, variants of concern demonstrated that certain mutations are associated with increased viral entry compared to the parental S. The Beta variant was also observed to have a replicative advantage in vitro and in vivo compared to the prototype virus. Pseudotyped viruses containing combinatorial substitutions of 501Y-484K-417K, 614G-501Y-484K and 614G-501Y-484K-417N increased viral entry via ACE2 across multiple species. The 501Y or 478K single substitution did not significantly affect neutralizing capacity of immune sera compared to the prototype strain, but the addition of 484K or 452R substitutions significantly reduced the neutralizing titers.

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