SARS-CoV-2 infection induces EC inflammation, leading to endotheliitis.1,5 Because S protein decreased ACE2 level and impaired NO bioavailability, we examined whether S protein entry is indispensable for dysfunctional endothelium. As shown in Figure [F], i, the endothelium-dependent vasodilation induced by acetylcholine was impaired in pulmonary arteries isolated from Pseu-Spike-administered hamsters, whereas the endothelium-independent vasodilation induced by sodium nitroprusside was not affected. We also compared the acetylcholine- and sodium nitroprusside–induced vasodilation of pulmonary vessels from ACE2-D or ACE2-L mice. As anticipated, acetylcholine-induced vasodilation was hindered in pulmonary arteries isolated from ACE2-L mice in comparison to ACE2-D mice (Figure [F], ii). There was, however, little difference in sodium nitroprusside–induced vasodilation between ACE2-D and ACE-L animals.
Although the use of a noninfectious pseudovirus is a limitation to this study, our data reveals that S protein alone can damage endothelium, manifested by impaired mitochondrial function and eNOS activity but increased glycolysis. It appears that S protein in ECs increases redox stress which may lead to AMPK deactivation, MDM2 upregulation, and ultimately ACE2 destabilization.4 Although these findings need to be confirmed with the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the future study, it seems paradoxical that ACE2 reduction by S protein would decrease the virus infectivity, thereby protecting endothelium. However, a dysregulated renin-angiotensin system due to ACE2 reduction may exacerbate endothelial dysfunction, leading to endotheliitis.
Collectively, our results suggest that the S protein-exerted EC damage overrides the decreased virus infectivity. This conclusion suggests that vaccination-generated antibody and/or exogenous antibody against S protein not only protects the host from SARS-CoV-2 infectivity but also inhibits S protein-imposed endothelial injury.