SARS-CoV-2 awakens ancient retroviral genes and the expression of proinflammatory HERV-W envelope protein in COVID-19 patients
Patients with COVID-19 may develop abnormal inflammatory response, followed in some cases by severe disease and long-lasting syndromes. We show here that in vitro exposure to SARS-CoV-2 activates the expression of the human endoge- nous retrovirus (HERV) HERV-W proinflammatory envelope protein (ENV) in peripheral blood mononuclear cells from a subset of healthy donors, in ACE2 receptor and infection-independent manner. Plasma and/or sera of 221 COVID- 19 patients from different cohorts, infected with successive SARS-CoV-2 variants including the Omicron, had detectable HERV-W ENV, which correlated with ENV expression in T lymphocytes and peaked with the disease severity. HERV-W ENV was also found in postmortem tissues of lungs, heart, gastrointestinal tract, brain olfactory bulb, and nasal mucosa from COVID-19 patients. Altogether, these results demonstrate that SARS-CoV-2 could induce HERV-W envelope protein expression and suggest its involvement in the immunopathogenesis of certain COVID-19-associated syndromes and thereby its relevance in the development of personalized treatment of patients.