The ongoing global vaccination program to prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, the causative agent of COVID-19, has had significant success. However, recently, virus variants that can evade the immunity in a host achieved through vaccination have emerged. Consequently, new therapeutic agents that can efficiently prevent infection from these new variants, and hence COVID-19 spread, are urgently required. To achieve this, extensive characterization of virus-host cell interactions to identify effective therapeutic targets is warranted. Here, we report a cell surface entry pathway of SARS-CoV-2 that exists in a cell type-dependent manner and is TMPRSS2 independent but sensitive to various broad-spectrum metalloproteinase inhibitors such as marimastat and prinomastat. Experiments with selective metalloproteinase inhibitors and gene-specific small interfering RNAS (siRNAs) revealed that a disintegrin and metalloproteinase 10 (ADAM10) is partially involved in the metalloproteinase pathway. Consistent with our finding that the pathway is unique to SARS-CoV-2 among highly pathogenic human coronaviruses, both the furin cleavage motif in the S1/S2 boundary and the S2 domain of SARS-CoV-2 spike protein are essential for metalloproteinase-dependent entry. In contrast, the two elements of SARS-CoV-2 independently contributed to TMPRSS2-dependent S2 priming. The metalloproteinase pathway is involved in SARS-CoV-2-induced syncytium formation and cytopathicity, leading us to theorize that it is also involved in the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2 and the pathogenesis of COVID-19. Thus, targeting the metalloproteinase pathway in addition to the TMPRSS2 and endosomal pathways could be an effective strategy by which to cure COVID-19 in the future. IMPORTANCE To develop effective therapeutics against COVID-19, it is necessary to elucidate in detail the infection mechanism of the causative agent, SARS-CoV-2. SARS-CoV-2 binds to the cell surface receptor ACE2 via the spike protein, and then the spike protein is cleaved by host proteases to enable entry. Here, we found that the metalloproteinase-mediated pathway is important for SARS-CoV-2 infection in addition to the TMPRSS2-mediated pathway and the endosomal pathway. The metalloproteinase-mediated pathway requires both the prior cleavage of spike into two domains and a specific sequence in the second domain, S2, conditions met by SARS-CoV-2 but lacking in the related human coronavirus SARS-CoV. Besides the contribution of metalloproteinases to SARS-CoV-2 infection, inhibition of metalloproteinases was important in preventing cell death, which may cause organ damage. Our study provides new insights into the complex pathogenesis unique to COVID-19 and relevant to the development of effective therapies.
ASJC Scopus subject areas