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Nchioua, Rayhane; Schundner, Annika; Kmiec, Dorota; Bozzo, Prelli Caterina; Zech, Fabian; Koepke, Lennart; Graf, Alexander; Krebs, Stefan; Blum, Helmut; Frick, Manfred; Sparrer, Konstantin M. J. and Kirchhoff, Frank (2022): SARS-CoV-2 Variants of Concern Hijack IFITM2 for Efficient Replication in Human Lung Cells. In: Journal of Virology, Vol. 96, No. 11

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It has recently been shown that an early SARS-CoV-2 isolate (NL-02-2020) hijacks interferon-induced transmembrane proteins (IFITMs) for efficient replication in human lung cells, cardiomyocytes, and gut organoids. To date, several 'variants of concern (VOCs) showing increased infectivity and resistance to neutralization have emerged and globally replaced the early viral strains. Here, we determined whether the five current SARS-CoV-2 VOCs (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Omicron) maintained the dependency on IFITM proteins for efficient replication. We found that depletion of IFITM2 strongly reduces viral RNA production by all VOCs in the human epithelial lung cancer cell line Calu-3. Silencing of IFITM1 had modest effects, while knockdown of IFITM3 resulted in an intermediate phenotype. Strikingly, depletion of IFITM2 generally reduced infectious virus production by more than 4 orders of magnitude. In addition, an antibody directed against the N terminus of IFITM2 inhibited SARS-CoV-2 VOC replication in induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSQ-derived alveolar epithelial type II cells, thought to represent major viral target cells in the lung. In conclusion, endogenously expressed IFITM proteins (especially IFITM2) are critical cofactors for efficient replication of genuine SARS-CoV-2 VOCs, including the currently dominant Omicron variant. IMPORTANCE Recent data indicate that SARS-CoV-2 requires endogenously expressed IFITM proteins for efficient infection. However, the results were obtained with an early SARS-CoV-2 isolate. Thus, it remained to be determined whether IFITMs are also important cofactors for infection of emerging SARS-CoV-2 VOCs that outcompeted the original strains in the meantime. This includes the Omicron VOC, which currently dominates the pandemic Here, we show that depletion of endogenous IFITM2 expression almost entirely prevents productive infection of Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Omicron SARS-CoV-2 VOCs in human lung cells. In addition, an antibody targeting the N terminus of IFITM2 inhibited SARS-CoV-2 VOC replication in iPSC-derived alveolar epithelial type II cells. Our results show that SARS-CoV-2 VOCs, including the currently dominant Omicron variant, are strongly dependent on IFITM2 for efficient replication, suggesting a key proviral role of IFITMs in viral transmission and pathogenicity.

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