The development of mouse models for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID- 19) has enabled testing of vaccines and therapeutics and defining aspects of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) pathogenesis. SARS-CoV-2 disease is severe in K18 transgenic mice (K18-hACE2 Tg) expressing human angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (hACE2), the SARS-CoV-2 receptor, under an ectopic cytokeratin promoter, with high levels of infection measured in the lung and brain. Here, we evaluated SARSCoV- 2 infection in hACE2 knock-in (KI) mice that express hACE2 under an endogenous promoter in place of murine ACE2 (mACE2). Intranasal inoculation of hACE2 KI mice with SARS-CoV-2 WA1/2020 resulted in substantial viral replication within the upper and lower respiratory tracts with limited spread to extrapulmonary organs. However, SARS-CoV-2- infected hACE2 KI mice did not lose weight and developed limited pathology. Moreover, no significant differences in viral burden were observed in hACE2 KI mice infected with B.1.1.7 or B.1.351 variants compared to the WA1/2020 strain. Because the entry mechanisms of SARS-CoV-2 in mice remain uncertain, we evaluated the impact of the naturally occurring, mouse-adapting N501Y mutation by comparing infection of hACE2 KI, K18- hACE2 Tg, ACE2-deficient, and wild-type C57BL/6 mice. The N501Y mutation minimally affected SARS-CoV-2 infection in hACE2 KI mice but was required for viral replication in wild-type C57BL/6 mice in a mACE2-dependent manner and augmented pathogenesis in the K18-hACE2 Tg mice. Thus, the N501Y mutation likely enhances interactions with mACE2 or hACE2 in vivo. Overall, our study highlights the hACE2 KI mice as a model of mild SARS-CoV-2 infection and disease and clarifies the requirement of the N501Y mutation in mice.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere01511-21
JournalJournal of virology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2022


  • Lung infection
  • Mouse model
  • Pathogenesis
  • SARS-CoV-2


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