Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infections initiate in the bronchi of the upper respiratory tract and are able to disseminate to the lower respiratory tract, where infections can cause an acute respiratory distress syndrome with a high degree of mortality in elderly patients. We used reconstituted primary bronchial epithelia from adult and child donors to follow the SARS-CoV-2 infection dynamics. We show that, in epithelia from adult donors, infections initiate in multiciliated cells and spread within 24 to 48 h throughout the whole epithelia. Syncytia formed of ciliated and basal cells appeared at the apical side of the epithelia within 3 to 4 d and were released into the apical lumen, where they contributed to the transmittable virus dose. A small number of reconstituted epithelia were intrinsically more resistant to virus infection, limiting virus spread to different degrees. This phenotype was more frequent in epithelia derived from children versus adults and correlated with an accelerated release of type III interferon. Treatment of permissive adult epithelia with exogenous type III interferon restricted infection, while type III interferon gene knockout promoted infection. Furthermore, a transcript analysis revealed that the inflammatory response was specifically attenuated in children. Taken together, our findings suggest that apical syncytia formation is an underappreciated source of virus propagation for tissue or environmental dissemination, whereas a robust type III interferon response such as commonly seen in young donors restricted SARS-CoV-2 infection. Thus, the combination of interferon restriction and attenuated inflammatory response in children might explain the epidemiological observation of age-related susceptibility to COVID-19.
Keywords: SARS-CoV-2; bronchial epithelia; children; interferon response; syncytia.