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Obesity fosters severe disease outcomes in a mouse model of coronavirus infection associated with transcriptomic abnormalities.

Obesity has been identified as an independent risk factor for severe outcomes in humans with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and other infectious diseases. Here, we established a mouse model of COVID-19 using the murine betacoronavirus, mouse hepatitis virus 1 (MHV-1). C57BL/6 and C3H/HeJ mice exposed to MHV-1 developed mild and severe disease, respectively. Obese C57BL/6 mice developed clinical manifestations similar to those of lean controls. In contrast, all obese C3H/HeJ mice succumbed by 8 days postinfection, compared to a 50% mortality rate in lean controls. Notably, both lean and obese C3H/HeJ mice exposed to MHV-1 developed lung lesions consistent with severe human COVID-19, with marked evidence of diffuse alveolar damage (DAD). To identify early predictive biomarkers of worsened disease outcomes in obese C3H/HeJ mice, we sequenced RNA from whole blood 2 days postinfection and assessed changes in gene and pathway expression. Many pathways uniquely altered in obese C3H/HeJ mice postinfection aligned with those found in humans with severe COVID-19. Furthermore, we observed altered gene expression related to the unfolded protein response and lipid metabolism in infected obese mice compared to their lean counterparts, suggesting a role in the severity of disease outcomes. This study presents a novel model for studying COVID-19 and elucidating the mechanisms underlying severe disease outcomes in obese and other hosts.

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