2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is a disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). In addition to respiratory illness, COVID-19 patients exhibit neurological symptoms lasting from weeks to months (long COVID). It is unclear whether these neurological manifestations are due to an infection of brain cells. We found that a small fraction of human induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC)-derived neurons, but not astrocytes, were naturally susceptible to SARS-CoV-2. Based on the inhibitory effect of blocking antibodies, the infection seemed to depend on the receptor angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), despite very low levels of its expression in neurons. The presence of double-stranded RNA in the cytoplasm (the hallmark of viral replication), abundant synthesis of viral late genes localized throughout infected cells, and an increase in the level of viral RNA in the culture medium (viral release) within the first 48 h of infection suggested that the infection was productive. Productive entry of SARS-CoV-2 requires the fusion of the viral and cellular membranes, which results in the delivery of the viral genome into the cytoplasm of the target cell. The fusion is triggered by proteolytic cleavage of the viral surface spike protein, which can occur at the plasma membrane or from endosomes or lysosomes. We found that SARS-CoV-2 infection of human neurons was insensitive to nafamostat and camostat, which inhibit cellular serine proteases, including transmembrane serine protease 2 (TMPRSS2). Inhibition of cathepsin L also did not significantly block infection. In contrast, the neuronal infection was blocked by apilimod, an inhibitor of phosphatidyl-inositol 5 kinase (PIK5K), which regulates early to late endosome maturation. IMPORTANCE COVID-19 is a disease caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Millions of patients display neurological symptoms, including headache, impairment of memory, seizures, and encephalopathy, as well as anatomical abnormalities, such as changes in brain morphology. SARS-CoV-2 infection of the human brain has been documented, but it is unclear whether the observed neurological symptoms are linked to direct brain infection. The mechanism of virus entry into neurons has also not been characterized. Here, we investigated SARS-CoV-2 infection by using a human iPSC-derived neural cell model and found that a small fraction of cortical-like neurons was naturally susceptible to infection. The productive infection was ACE2 dependent and TMPRSS2 independent. We also found that the virus used the late endosomal and lysosomal pathway for cell entry and that the infection could be blocked by apilimod, an inhibitor of cellular PIK5K.
Keywords: COVID-19; PIK5; SARS-CoV-2; apilimod; astrocyte; brain; central nervous system infections; iPSC; long COVID; neuron.