Human airway and nasal organoids reveal escalating replicative fitness of SARS-CoV-2 emerging variants

Cun Li, Jingjing Huang, Yifei Yu, Zhixin Wan, Man Chun Chiu, Xiaojuan Liu, Shuxin Zhang, Jian-Piao Cai, Hin Chu, Gang Li, Jasper Fuk-Woo Chan, Kelvin Kai-Wang To, Zifeng Yang, Shibo Jiang, Kwok-Yung Yuen, Hans Clevers, Jie Zhou

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review

23 Citations (Scopus)


The high transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 Omicron subvariants was generally ascribed to immune escape. It remained unclear whether the emerging variants have gradually acquired replicative fitness in human respiratory epithelial cells. We sought to evaluate the replicative fitness of BA.5 and earlier variants in physiologically active respiratory organoids. BA.5 exhibited a dramatically increased replicative capacity and infectivity than B.1.1.529 and an ancestral strain wildtype (WT) in human nasal and airway organoids. BA.5 spike pseudovirus showed a significantly higher entry efficiency than that carrying WT or B.1.1.529 spike. Notably, we observed prominent syncytium formation in BA.5-infected nasal and airway organoids, albeit elusive in WT- and B.1.1.529-infected organoids. BA.5 spike-triggered syncytium formation was verified by lentiviral overexpression of spike in nasal organoids. Moreover, BA.5 replicated modestly in alveolar organoids, with a significantly lower titer than B.1.1.529 and WT. Collectively, the higher entry efficiency and fusogenic activity of BA.5 spike potentiated viral spread through syncytium formation in the human airway epithelium, leading to enhanced replicative fitness and immune evasion, whereas the attenuated replicative capacity of BA.5 in the alveolar organoids may account for its benign clinical manifestation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e2300376120
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number17
Publication statusPublished - 25 Apr 2023


  • Humans
  • SARS-CoV-2/genetics
  • COVID-19/genetics
  • Nose
  • Organoids
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus/genetics
  • Antibodies, Neutralizing
  • Antibodies, Viral


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