A basally active cGAS-STING pathway limits SARS-CoV-2 replication in a subset of ACE2 positive airway cell models

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Host factors that define the cellular tropism of SARS-CoV-2 beyond the cognate ACE2 receptor are poorly defined. From a screen of human airway derived cell lines that express varying levels of ACE2/TMPRSS2, we found a subset that express comparably high endogenous levels of ACE2 but surprisingly did not support SARS-CoV-2 replication. Here we report that this resistance is mediated by a basally active cGAS-STING pathway culminating in interferon (IFN)-mediated restriction of SARS-CoV-2 replication at a post-entry step. Pharmacological inhibition of JAK1/2, depletion of the IFN-α receptor and cGAS-STING pathway effectors substantially increased SARS-CoV-2 replication in these cell models. While depletion of cGAS or STING was sufficient to reduce the preexisting levels of IFN-stimulated genes (ISGs), SARS-CoV-2 infection in STING knockout cells independently induced ISG expression. Remarkably, SARS-CoV-2-induced ISG expression in STING knockout cell as well as in primary human airway cultures was limited to uninfected bystander cells, demonstrating efficient antagonism of the type I/III IFN-pathway, but not viral sensing or IFN production, in productively infected cells. Of note, SARS-CoV-2-infected primary human airway cells also displayed markedly lower levels of STING expression, raising the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 can target STING expression or preferentially infect cells that express low levels of STING. Finally, ectopic ACE2 overexpression overcame the IFN-mediated blocks, suggesting the ability of SARS-CoV-2 to overcome these possibly saturable blocks to infection. Our study highlights that in addition to viral receptors, basal activation of the cGAS-STING pathway and innate immune defenses may contribute to defining SARS-CoV-2 cellular tropism.

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