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The altered entry pathway and antigenic distance of the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant map to separate domains of spike protein

By Thomas P. Peacock, Jonathan C. Brown, Jie Zhou, Nazia Thakur, Joseph Newman, Ruthiran Kugathasan, Ksenia Sukhova, Myrsini Kaforou, Dalan Bailey, Wendy Barclay

Posted 03 Jan 2022
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.12.31.474653

The SARS-CoV-2 Omicron/BA.1 lineage emerged in late 2021 and rapidly displaced the Delta variant before being overtaken itself globally by, the Omicron/BA.2 lineage in early 2022. Here, we describe how Omicron BA.1 and BA.2 show a lower severity phenotype in a hamster model of pathogenicity which maps specifically to the spike gene. We further show that Omicron is attenuated in a lung cell line but replicates more rapidly, albeit to lower peak titres, in human primary nasal cells. This replication phenotype also maps to the spike gene. Omicron spike (including the emerging Omicron lineage BA.4) shows attenuated fusogenicity and a preference for cell entry via the endosomal route. We map the altered Omicron spike entry route and partially map the lower fusogenicity to the S2 domain, particularly the substitution N969K. Finally, we show that pseudovirus with Omicron spike, engineered in the S2 domain to confer a more Delta-like cell entry route retains the antigenic properties of Omicron. This shows a distinct separation between the genetic determinants of these two key Omicron phenotypes, raising the concerning possibility that future variants with large antigenic distance from currently circulating and vaccine strains will not necessarily display the lower intrinsic severity seen during Omicron infection.

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