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SARS-CoV-2 accessory proteins ORF7a and ORF3a use distinct mechanisms to downregulate MHC-I surface expression

By Najla Arshad, Maudry Laurent-Rolle, Wesam S Ahmed, Jack Chun-Chieh Hsu, Susan M Mitchell, Joanna Pawlak, Debrup Sengupta, Kabir Hassan Biswas, Peter Cresswell

Posted 17 May 2022
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2022.05.17.492198

Major histocompatibility complex class I (MHC-I) molecules, which are dimers of a glycosylated polymorphic transmembrane heavy chain and the small protein {beta}2-microglobulin ({beta}2m), bind peptides in the endoplasmic reticulum that are generated by the cytosolic turnover of cellular proteins. In virus-infected cells these peptides may include those derived from viral proteins. Peptide-MHC-I complexes then traffic through the secretory pathway and are displayed at the cell surface where those containing viral peptides can be detected by CD8+ T lymphocytes that kill infected cells. Many viruses enhance their in vivo survival by encoding genes that downregulate MHC-I expression to avoid CD8+ T cell recognition. Here we report that two accessory proteins encoded by SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, downregulate MHC-I expression using distinct mechanisms. One, ORF3a, a viroporin, reduces global trafficking of proteins, including MHC-I, through the secretory pathway. The second, ORF7a, interacts specifically with the MHC-I heavy chain, acting as a molecular mimic of {beta}2m to inhibit its association. This slows the exit of properly assembled MHC-I molecules from the endoplasmic reticulum. We demonstrate that ORF7a reduces antigen presentation by the human MHC-I allele HLA-A*02:01. Thus, both ORF3a and ORF7a act post-translationally in the secretory pathway to lower surface MHC-I expression, with ORF7a exhibiting a novel and specific mechanism that allows immune evasion by SARS-CoV-2.

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