Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) is a highly contagious respiratory virus that can lead to venous/arterial thrombosis, stroke, renal failure, myocardial infarction, thrombocytopenia, and other end-organ damage. Animal models demonstrating end-organ protection in C3 deficient mice and evidence of complement activation in humans have led to the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 triggers complement-mediated endothelial damage, but the mechanism is unclear. Here, we demonstrate that SARS-CoV-2 spike protein (subunit 1 and 2), but not N protein, directly activates the alternative pathway of complement (APC). Complement dependent killing using the modified Ham test is blocked by either C5 or factor D inhibition. C3 fragments and C5b-9 are deposited on TF1PIGAnull target cells, and complement factor Bb is increased in the supernatant from spike protein treated cells. C5 inhibition prevents the accumulation of C5b-9 on cells, but not C3c; however, factor D inhibition prevents both C3c and C5b-9 accumulation. Addition of factor H mitigates the complement attack. In conclusion, SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins convert non-activator surfaces to activator surfaces by preventing the inactivation of the cell surface APC convertase. APC activation may explain many of the clinical manifestations (microangiopathy, thrombocytopenia, renal injury, and thrombophilia) of COVID-19 that are also observed in other complement-driven diseases such as atypical hemolytic uremic syndrome and catastrophic antiphospholipid antibody syndrome. C5 inhibition prevents accumulation of C5b-9 in vitro but does not prevent upstream complement activation in response to SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins.
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