Comparative Assessment of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 Variants in the Ferret Model

mBio. 2022 Sep 22;e0242122. doi: 10.1128/mbio.02421-22. Online ahead of print.

Abstract

The continued spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in humans necessitates evaluation of variants for enhanced virulence and transmission. We used the ferret model to perform a comparative analysis of four SARS-CoV-2 strains, including an early pandemic isolate from the United States (WA1), and representatives of the Alpha, Beta, and Delta lineages. While Beta virus was not capable of pronounced replication in ferrets, WA1, Alpha, and Delta viruses productively replicated in the ferret upper respiratory tract, despite causing only mild disease with no overt histopathological changes. Strain-specific transmissibility was observed; WA1 and Delta viruses transmitted in a direct contact setting, whereas Delta virus was also capable of limited airborne transmission. Viral RNA was shed in exhaled air particles from all inoculated animals but was highest for Delta virus. Prior infection with SARS-CoV-2 offered varied protection against reinfection with either homologous or heterologous variants. Notable genomic variants in the spike protein were most frequently detected following WA1 and Delta virus infection. IMPORTANCE Continued surveillance and risk assessment of emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants are critical for pandemic response and preparedness. As such, in vivo evaluations are indispensable for early detection of variants with enhanced virulence and transmission. Here, we used the ferret model to compare the pathogenicity and transmissibility of an original SARS-CoV-2 isolate (USA-WA1/2020 [WA1]) to those of a panel of Alpha, Beta, and Delta variants, as well as to evaluate protection from homologous and heterologous reinfection. We observed strain-specific differences in replication kinetics in the ferret respiratory tract and virus load emitted into the air, revealing enhanced transmissibility of the Delta virus relative to previously detected strains. Prior infection with SARS-CoV-2 provided varied levels of protection from reinfection, with the Beta strain eliciting the lowest level of protection. Overall, we found that ferrets represent a useful model for comparative assessments of SARS-CoV-2 infection, transmission, and reinfection.

Keywords: COVID-19; Delta; SARS-CoV-2; airborne transmission; ferret; reinfection; variant.