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Traditionally, the emergence of coronaviruses (CoVs) has been attributed to a gain in receptor binding in a new host. Our previous work with SARS-like viruses argued that bats already harbor CoVs with the ability to infect humans without adaptation. These results suggested that additional barriers limit the emergence of zoonotic CoV. In this work, we describe overcoming host restriction of two MERS-like bat CoVs using exogenous protease treatment. We found that the spike protein of PDF2180-CoV, a MERS-like virus found in a Ugandan bat, could mediate infection of Vero and human cells in the presence of exogenous trypsin. We subsequently show that the bat virus spike can mediate infection of human gut cells, but is unable to infect human lung cells. Using receptor-blocking antibodies, we show that infection with the PDF2180 spike does not require MERS-CoV receptor DPP4 and antibodies developed against the MERS spike receptor-binding domain and S2 portion are ineffective in neutralizing the PDF2180 chimera. Finally, we found that addition of exogenous trypsin also rescues replication of HKU5-CoV, a second MERS-like group 2c CoV. Together, these results indicate that proteolytic cleavage of the spike, not receptor binding, is the primary infection barrier for these two group 2c CoVs. Coupled with receptor binding, proteolytic activation offers a new parameter to evaluate emergence potential of CoVs and offer a means to recover previously unrecoverable zoonotic CoV strains.

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