Long-Term Modeling of SARS-CoV-2 Infection of In Vitro Cultured Polarized Human Airway Epithelium

Siyuan Hao, Kang Ning, Cagla Aksu Kuz, Kai Vorhies, Ziying Yan, Jianming Qiu
MBio 2020 November 6, 11 (6)
Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) replicates throughout human airways. The polarized human airway epithelium (HAE) cultured at an airway-liquid interface (HAE-ALI) is an in vitro model mimicking the in vivo human mucociliary airway epithelium and supports the replication of SARS-CoV-2. Prior studies characterized only short-period SARS-CoV-2 infection in HAE. In this study, continuously monitoring the SARS-CoV-2 infection in HAE-ALI cultures for a long period of up to 51 days revealed that SARS-CoV-2 infection was long lasting with recurrent replication peaks appearing between an interval of approximately 7 to 10 days, which was consistent in all the tested HAE-ALI cultures derived from 4 lung bronchi of independent donors. We also identified that SARS-CoV-2 does not infect HAE from the basolateral side, and the dominant SARS-CoV-2 permissive epithelial cells are ciliated cells and goblet cells, whereas virus replication in basal cells and club cells was not detected. Notably, virus infection immediately damaged the HAE, which is demonstrated by dispersed zonula occludens-1 (ZO-1) expression without clear tight junctions and partial loss of cilia. Importantly, we identified that SARS-CoV-2 productive infection of HAE requires a high viral load of >2.5 × 105 virions per cm2 of epithelium. Thus, our studies highlight the importance of a high viral load and that epithelial renewal initiates and maintains a recurrent infection of HAE with SARS-CoV-2. IMPORTANCE The pandemic of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), which is caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), has led to >35 million confirmed cases and >1 million fatalities worldwide. SARS-CoV-2 mainly replicates in human airway epithelia in COVID-19 patients. In this study, we used in vitro cultures of polarized human bronchial airway epithelium to model SARS-CoV-2 replication for a period of 21 to 51 days. We discovered that in vitro airway epithelial cultures endure a long-lasting SARS-CoV-2 propagation with recurrent peaks of progeny virus release at an interval of approximately 7 to 10 days. Our study also revealed that SARS-CoV-2 infection causes airway epithelia damage with disruption of tight junction function and loss of cilia. Importantly, SARS-CoV-2 exhibits a polarity of infection in airway epithelium only from the apical membrane; it infects ciliated and goblet cells but not basal and club cells. Furthermore, the productive infection of SARS-CoV-2 requires a high viral load of over 2.5 × 105 virions per cm2 of epithelium. Our study highlights that the proliferation of airway basal cells and regeneration of airway epithelium may contribute to the recurrent infections.

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