Fetal brain vulnerability to SARS-CoV-2 infection
Whether or not SARS-CoV-2 can cross from mother to fetus during a prenatal infection has been controversial; however, recent evidence such as viral RNA detection in umbilical cord blood and amniotic fluid, as well as the discovery of additional entry receptors in fetal tissues suggests a potential for viral transmission to and infection of the fetus. Furthermore, neonates exposed to maternal COVID-19 during later development have displayed neurodevelopmental and motor skill deficiencies, suggesting the potential for consequential neurological infection or inflammation in utero. Thus, we investigated transmission potential of SARS-CoV-2 and the consequences of infection on the developing brain using human ACE2 knock-in mice. In this model, we found that viral transmission to the fetal tissues, including the brain, occurred at later developmental stages, and that infection primarily targeted male fetuses. In the brain, SARS-CoV-2 infection largely occurred within the vasculature, but also within other cells such as neurons, glia, and choroid plexus cells; however, viral replication and increased cell death were not observed in fetal tissues. Interestingly, early gross developmental differences were observed between infected and mock-infected offspring, and high levels of gliosis were seen in the infected brains 7 days post initial infection despite viral clearance at this time point. In the pregnant mice, we also observed more severe COVID-19 infections, with greater weight loss and viral dissemination to the brain, compared to non-pregnant mice. Surprisingly, we did not observe an increase in maternal inflammation or the antiviral IFN response in these infected mice, despite showing clinical signs of disease. Overall, these findings have concerning implications regarding neurodevelopment and pregnancy complications of the mother following prenatal COVID-19 exposure.