In a paper published in Cell Reports April 2, researchers at the German Primate Center (DPZ) – Leibniz Institute for Primate Research in Göttingen, Germany, show that an antibody used for COVID-19 therapy is unable to effectively inhibit SARS-CoV-2 harbouring a spike mutation acquired in minks. In addition, the mutation reduced the inhibition of the virus by antibodies produced in SARS-CoV-2 infected humans. These results show that SARS-CoV-2 can acquire mutations in minks that may reduce control of the virus by the human immune system.
In April 2020, mink in Dutch mink farms developed a respiratory disease due to infection with SARS-CoV-2, which was transmitted from infected farm workers to the animals. The virus mutated in mink and different virus variants emerged, which were transmitted back to farm workers and then also transmitted from human to human. This observation was also made in Denmark and millions of minks were killed to prevent the transmission of new viral variants to humans.
The spike protein in the envelope of SARS-CoV-2 is responsible for the entry of the virus into cells in which it replicates. Researchers led by Markus Hoffmann and Stefan Pöhlmann of the German Primate Center have studied mutations detected in the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 from mink, including mutation Y453F.
The researchers wanted to find out whether this mutation affects inhibition of the virus by antibodies that are used for COVID-19 therapy or are produced in COVID-19 patients.
“Our results show that one of two antibodies from an antibody cocktail used for COVID-19 therapy no longer efficiently inhibits the viral variant with the Y453F mutation. Furthermore, our study demonstrates that the Y453F mutation reduces inhibition of the virus by antibodies produced by COVID-19 patients. This means that people who were infected with SARS-CoV-2 may have reduced protection against mink variants of the virus,” says Hoffmann, first author of the study.
In summary, SARS-CoV-2 can mutate in minks in a way that reduces immune control by antibodies. Whether this is also possible in other animals to which the virus can be transmitted by infected individuals is currently unclear.
“In the meantime, the Y453F mutation has also occurred in humans, but not through infection with a mink variant. When the virus replicates for a long time in people who are immunocompromised, resistant variants can emerge. In this case, the resistance-mediating mutation was identical to the one observed in mink,” says Pöhlmann.