By Kara Manke
A study published today in the journal Nature Communications reveals how a viral toxin produced by the SARS-CoV-2 virus may contribute to severe COVID-19 infections.
The study shows how a portion of the SARS-CoV-2 “spike” protein can damage cell barriers that line the inside of blood vessels within organs of the body, such as the lungs, contributing to what is known as vascular leak. Blocking the activity of this protein may help prevent some of COVID-19’s deadliest symptoms, including pulmonary edema, which contributes to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).
“In theory, by specifically targeting this pathway, we could block pathogenesis that leads to vascular disorder and acute respiratory distress syndrome without needing to target the virus itself,” said study lead author Scott Biering, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. “In light of all the different variants that are emerging and the difficulty in preventing infection from each one individually, it might be beneficial to focus on these triggers of pathogenesis in addition to blocking infection altogether.”
While many vaccine skeptics have stoked fears about potential dangers of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein — which is the target of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines — the researchers say that their work provides no evidence that the spike protein can cause symptoms in the absence of viral infection. Instead, their study suggests that the spike protein may work in tandem with the virus and the body’s own immune response to trigger life-threatening symptoms.
In addition, the amount of spike protein circulating in the body after vaccination is far less concentrated than the amounts that have been observed in patients with severe COVID-19 and that were used in the study.