Samuel J. Dicken 1 , Matthew J. Murray 1 , Lucy G. Thorne 1 , Ann-Kathrin Reuschl 1 , Calum Forrest 1 , Maaroothen Ganeshalingham 1 , Luke Muir 1 , Mphatso D. Kalemera 1 , Machaela Palor 1 , Laura E. McCoy 1 , Clare Jolly 1 , Greg J. Towers 1 , Matthew B. Reeves 1 , Joe Grove 1
22 March 2021
The recent emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants with increased transmission, pathogenesis and immune resistance has jeopardised the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Determining the fundamental biology of viral variants and understanding their evolutionary trajectories will guide current mitigation measures, future genetic surveillance and vaccination strategies. Here we examine virus entry by the B.1.1.7 lineage, commonly referred to as the UK/Kent variant. Pseudovirus infection of model cell lines demonstrate that B.1.1.7 entry is enhanced relative to the Wuhan-Hu-1 reference strain, particularly under low expression of receptor ACE2. Moreover, the entry characteristics of B.1.1.7 were distinct from that of its predecessor strain containing the D614G mutation. These data suggest evolutionary tuning of spike protein function. Additionally, we found that amino acid deletions within the N-terminal domain (NTD) of spike were important for efficient entry by B.1.1.7. The NTD is a hotspot of diversity across sarbecoviruses, therefore, we further investigated this region by examining the entry of closely related CoVs. Surprisingly, Pangolin CoV spike entry was 50–100 fold enhanced relative to SARS-CoV-2; suggesting there may be evolutionary pathways by which SARSCoV-2 may further optimise entry. Swapping the NTD between Pangolin CoV and SARS-CoV-2 demonstrates that changes in this region alone have the capacity to enhance virus entry. Thus, the NTD plays a hitherto unrecognised role in modulating spike activity, warranting further investigation and surveillance of NTD mutations.