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Journal: bioRxiv : the preprint server for biology


Antibodies targeting the SARS-CoV-2 spike receptor-binding domain (RBD) are being developed as therapeutics and make a major contribution to the neutralizing antibody response elicited by infection. Here, we describe a deep mutational scanning method to map how all amino-acid mutations in the RBD affect antibody binding, and apply this method to 10 human monoclonal antibodies. The escape mutations cluster on several surfaces of the RBD that broadly correspond to structurally defined antibody epitopes. However, even antibodies targeting the same RBD surface often have distinct escape mutations. The complete escape maps predict which mutations are selected during viral growth in the presence of single antibodies, and enable us to design escape-resistant antibody cocktails-including cocktails of antibodies that compete for binding to the same surface of the RBD but have different escape mutations. Therefore, complete escape-mutation maps enable rational design of antibody therapeutics and assessment of the antigenic consequences of viral evolution.


Global spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) continues unabated. Binding of SARS-CoV-2’s Spike protein to host angiotensin converting enzyme 2 triggers viral entry, but other proteins may participate, including neuropilin-1 receptor (NRP-1). As both Spike protein and vascular endothelial growth factor-A (VEGF-A) - a pro-nociceptive and angiogenic factor, bind NRP-1, we tested if Spike could block VEGF-A/NRP-1 signaling. VEGF-A-triggered sensory neuronal firing was blocked by Spike protein and NRP-1 inhibitor EG00229. Pro-nociceptive behaviors of VEGF-A were similarly blocked via suppression of spontaneous spinal synaptic activity and reduction of electrogenic currents in sensory neurons. Remarkably, preventing VEGF-A/NRP-1 signaling was antiallodynic in a neuropathic pain model. A ‘silencing’ of pain via subversion of VEGF-A/NRP-1 signaling may underlie increased disease transmission in asymptomatic individuals.


We remain largely without effective prophylactic/therapeutic interventions for COVID-19. Although many human clinical trials are ongoing, there remains a deficiency of supportive preclinical drug efficacy studies. Here we assessed the prophylactic/therapeutic efficacy of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), a drug of interest for COVID-19 management, in two animal models. When used for prophylaxis or treatment neither the standard human malaria dose (6.5 mg/kg) nor a high dose (50 mg/kg) of HCQ had any beneficial effect on clinical disease or SARS-CoV-2 kinetics (replication/shedding) in the Syrian hamster disease model. Similarly, HCQ prophylaxis/treatment (6.5 mg/kg) did not significantly benefit clinical outcome nor reduce SARS-CoV-2 replication/shedding in the upper and lower respiratory tract in the rhesus macaque disease model. In conclusion, our preclinical animal studies do not support the use of HCQ in prophylaxis/treatment of COVID-19.


The current COVID-19 pandemic is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 betacoronavirus, which utilizes its highly glycosylated trimeric Spike protein to bind to the cell surface receptor ACE2 glycoprotein and facilitate host cell entry. We utilized glycomics-informed glycoproteomics to characterize site-specific microheterogeneity of glycosylation for a recombinant trimer Spike mimetic immunogen and for a soluble version of human ACE2. We combined this information with bioinformatic analyses of natural variants and with existing 3D-structures of both glycoproteins to generate molecular dynamics simulations of each glycoprotein alone and interacting with one another. Our results highlight roles for glycans in sterically masking polypeptide epitopes and directly modulating Spike-ACE2 interactions. Furthermore, our results illustrate the impact of viral evolution and divergence on Spike glycosylation, as well as the influence of natural variants on ACE2 receptor glycosylation that, taken together, can facilitate immunogen design to achieve antibody neutralization and inform therapeutic strategies to inhibit viral infection.


The D614G substitution in the S protein is most prevalent SARS-CoV-2 strain circulating globally, but its effects in viral pathogenesis and transmission remain unclear. We engineered SARS-CoV-2 variants harboring the D614G substitution with or without nanoluciferase. The D614G variant replicates more efficiency in primary human proximal airway epithelial cells and is more fit than wildtype (WT) virus in competition studies. With similar morphology to the WT virion, the D614G virus is also more sensitive to SARS-CoV-2 neutralizing antibodies. Infection of human ACE2 transgenic mice and Syrian hamsters with the WT or D614G viruses produced similar titers in respiratory tissue and pulmonary disease. However, the D614G variant exhibited significantly faster droplet transmission between hamsters than the WT virus, early after infection. Our study demonstrated the SARS-CoV2 D614G substitution enhances infectivity, replication fitness, and early transmission.


Due to the lack of protective immunity of humans towards the newly emerged SARS-CoV-2, this virus has caused a massive pandemic across the world resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Thus, a vaccine is urgently needed to contain the spread of the virus. Here, we describe Newcastle disease virus (NDV) vector vaccines expressing the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 in its wild type or a pre-fusion membrane anchored format. All described NDV vector vaccines grow to high titers in embryonated chicken eggs. In a proof of principle mouse study, we report that the NDV vector vaccines elicit high levels of antibodies that are neutralizing when the vaccine is given intramuscularly. Importantly, these COVID-19 vaccine candidates protect mice from a mouse-adapted SARS-CoV-2 challenge with no detectable viral titer and viral antigen in the lungs.


Without an effective prophylactic solution, infections from SARS-CoV-2 continue to rise worldwide with devastating health and economic costs. SARS-CoV-2 gains entry into host cells via an interaction between its Spike protein and the host cell receptor angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2). Disruption of this interaction confers potent neutralization of viral entry, providing an avenue for vaccine design and for therapeutic antibodies. Here, we develop single-domain antibodies (nanobodies) that potently disrupt the interaction between the SARS-CoV-2 Spike and ACE2. By screening a yeast surface-displayed library of synthetic nanobody sequences, we identified a panel of nanobodies that bind to multiple epitopes on Spike and block ACE2 interaction via two distinct mechanisms. Cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM) revealed that one exceptionally stable nanobody, Nb6, binds Spike in a fully inactive conformation with its receptor binding domains (RBDs) locked into their inaccessible down-state, incapable of binding ACE2. Affinity maturation and structure-guided design of multivalency yielded a trivalent nanobody, mNb6-tri, with femtomolar affinity for SARS-CoV-2 Spike and picomolar neutralization of SARS-CoV-2 infection. mNb6-tri retains stability and function after aerosolization, lyophilization, and heat treatment. These properties may enable aerosol-mediated delivery of this potent neutralizer directly to the airway epithelia, promising to yield a widely deployable, patient-friendly prophylactic and/or early infection therapeutic agent to stem the worst pandemic in a century.


Drug repurposing is the only method capable of delivering treatments on the shortened time-scale required for patients afflicted with lung disease arising from SARS-CoV-2 infection. Mucin-1 (MUC1), a membrane-bound molecule expressed on the apical surfaces of most mucosal epithelial cells, is a biochemical marker whose elevated levels predict the development of acute lung injury (ALI) and respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), and correlate with poor clinical outcomes. In response to the pandemic spread of SARS-CoV-2, we took advantage of a high content screen of 3,713 compounds at different stages of clinical development to identify FDA-approved compounds that reduce MUC1 protein abundance. Our screen identified Fostamatinib (R788), an inhibitor of spleen tyrosine kinase (SYK) approved for the treatment of chronic immune thrombocytopenia, as a repurposing candidate for the treatment of ALI. In vivo , Fostamatinib reduced MUC1 abundance in lung epithelial cells in a mouse model of ALI. In vitro , SYK inhibition by Fostamatinib promoted MUC1 removal from the cell surface. Our work reveals Fostamatinib as a repurposing drug candidate for ALI and provides the rationale for rapidly standing up clinical trials to test Fostamatinib efficacy in patients with COVID-19 lung injury.


Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID19) is a respiratory infection caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) originating in Wuhan China in 2019. The disease is notably severe in elderly and those with underlying chronic conditions. A molecular mechanism that explains why the elderly are vulnerable and why children are resistant is largely unknown. Understanding these differences is critical for safeguarding the vulnerable and guiding effective policy and treatments. Here we show loading cells with cholesterol from blood serum using the cholesterol transport protein apolipoprotein E (apoE) enhances the endocytic entry of pseudotyped SARS-CoV-2. Super resolution imaging of the SARS-CoV-2 entry point with high cholesterol showed almost twice the total number of viral entry points. The cholesterol concomitantly traffics angiotensinogen converting enzyme (ACE2) to the viral entry site where SARS-CoV-2 docks to properly exploit entry into the cell. Cholesterol also increased binding of SARS-CoV-2 receptor binding domains. In mouse lung we found age and high fat diet induced cholesterol loading into lung tissue by up to 40%. Based on these findings, we propose a cholesterol dependent model for COVID19 lethality in elderly and the chronically ill. As cholesterol increases with age and inflammation (e.g. obesity, smoking, and diabetes), the cell surface is coated with viral entry points, optimally assembled viral entry proteins, and optimal furin priming. Importantly our model suggests problems arise when cholesterol levels are high in the tissue, not the blood. In fact, rapidly dropping cholesterol in the blood may indicate severe loading of cholesterol in peripheral tissue and a dangerous situation for escalated SARS-CoV-2 infectivity. Molecules that remove cholesterol from tissue or disrupt ACE2 localization with viral entry points or furin localization for priming in the producer cells, likely reduce the severity of COVID19 in critically ill patients.


There is an urgent need for anti-viral agents that treat SARS-CoV-2 infection. The shortest path to clinical use is repurposing of drugs that have an established safety profile in humans. Here, we first screened a library of 1,900 clinically safe drugs for inhibiting replication of OC43, a human beta-coronavirus that causes the common-cold and is a relative of SARS-CoV-2, and identified 108 effective drugs. We further evaluated the top 26 hits and determined their ability to inhibit SARS-CoV-2, as well as other pathogenic RNA viruses. 20 of the 26 drugs significantly inhibited SARS-CoV-2 replication in human lung cells (A549 epithelial cell line), with EC50 values ranging from 0.1 to 8 micromolar. We investigated the mechanism of action for these and found that masitinib, a drug originally developed as a tyrosine-kinase inhibitor for cancer treatment, strongly inhibited the activity of the SARS-CoV-2 main protease 3CLpro. X-ray crystallography revealed that masitinib directly binds to the active site of 3CLpro, thereby blocking its enzymatic activity. Mastinib also inhibited the related viral protease of picornaviruses and blocked picornaviruses replication. Thus, our results show that masitinib has broad anti-viral activity against two distinct beta-coronaviruses and multiple picornaviruses that cause human disease and is a strong candidate for clinical trials to treat SARS-CoV-2 infection.