Publication date: Jul 10, 2023
SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variants emerged in 2022 with >30 novel amino acid mutations in the spike protein alone. While most studies focus on receptor binding domain changes, mutations in the C-terminus of S1 (CTS1), adjacent to the furin cleavage site, have largely been ignored. In this study, we examined three Omicron mutations in CTS1: H655Y, N679K, and P681H. Generating a SARS-CoV-2 triple mutant (YKH), we found that the mutant increased spike processing, consistent with prior reports for H655Y and P681H individually. Next, we generated a single N679K mutant, finding reduced viral replication in vitro and less disease in vivo. Mechanistically, the N679K mutant had reduced spike protein in purified virions compared to wild-type; spike protein decreases were further exacerbated in infected cell lysates. Importantly, exogenous spike expression also revealed that N679K reduced overall spike protein yield independent of infection. Although a loss-of-function mutation, transmission competition demonstrated that N679K had a replication advantage in the upper airway over wild-type SARS-CoV-2 in hamsters, potentially impacting transmissibility. Together, the data show that N679K reduces overall spike protein levels during Omicron infection, which has important implications for infection, immunity, and transmission.
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