Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) emerged into humans in 2012, causing highly lethal respiratory disease. The severity of disease may be in part because MERS-CoV is adept at antagonizing early innate immune pathways – interferon (IFN) production and signaling, protein kinase R (PKR), and oligoadenylate synthetase ribonuclease L (OAS/RNase L) – generated in response to viral double-stranded (ds)RNA generated during genome replication. This is in contrast to SARS-CoV-2, which we recently reported activates PKR and RNase L and to some extent, IFN signaling. We previously found that MERS-CoV accessory proteins NS4a (dsRNA binding protein) and NS4b (phosphodiesterase) could weakly suppress these pathways, but ablation of each had minimal effect on virus replication. Here we investigated the antagonist effects of the conserved coronavirus endoribonuclease (EndoU), in combination with NS4a or NS4b. Inactivation of EndoU catalytic activity alone in a recombinant MERS-CoV caused little if any effect on activation of the innate immune pathways during infection. However, infection with recombinant viruses containing combined mutations with inactivation of EndoU and deletion of NS4a or inactivation of the NS4b phosphodiesterase promoted robust activation of the dsRNA-induced innate immune pathways. This resulted in ten-fold attenuation of replication in human lung derived A549 and primary nasal cells. Furthermore, replication of these recombinant viruses could be rescued to the level of WT MERS-CoV by knockout of host immune mediators MAVS, PKR, or RNase L. Thus, EndoU and accessory proteins NS4a and NS4b together suppress dsRNA-induced innate immunity during MERS-CoV infection in order to optimize viral replication.
Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) causes highly lethal respiratory disease. MERS-CoV encodes several innate immune antagonists, accessory proteins NS4a and NS4b unique to the merbeco lineage and the nsp15 protein endoribonuclease (EndoU), conserved among all coronaviruses. While mutation of each antagonist protein alone has little effect on innate immunity, infections with recombinant MERS-CoVs with mutations of EndoU in combination with either NS4a or NS4b, activate innate signaling pathways and are attenuated for replication. Our data indicate that EndoU and accessory proteins NS4a and NS4b together suppress innate immunity during MERS-CoV infection, to optimize viral replication. This is in contrast to SARS-CoV-2 which activates these pathways and consistent with greater mortality observed during MERS-CoV infection compared to SARS-CoV-2.