Exposure route, sex, and age influence disease outcome in a golden Syrian hamster model of SARS-CoV-2 infection


The emergence of Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and the resultant pandemic of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has led to over one hundred million confirmed infections, greater than three million deaths, and severe economic and social disruption. Animal models of SARS-CoV-2 are critical tools for the pre-clinical evaluation of antivirals, vaccines, and candidate therapeutics currently under urgent development to curb COVID-19-associated morbidity and mortality. The golden (Syrian) hamster model of SARS-CoV-2 infection recapitulates key characteristics of severe COVID-19, including high-titer viral replication in the upper and lower respiratory tract and the development of pathogenic lesions in the lungs. In this work we examined the influence of the route of exposure, sex, and age on SARS-CoV-2 pathogenesis in golden hamsters. We report that delivery of SARS-CoV-2 primarily to the nasal passages (low-volume intranasal), the upper and lower respiratory tract (high-volume intranasal), or the digestive tract (intragastric) results in comparable viral titers in the lung tissue and similar levels of viral shedding during acute infection. However, low-volume intranasal exposure results in milder weight loss during acute infection while intragastric exposure leads to a diminished capacity to regain body weight following the period of acute illness. Further, we examined both sex and age differences in response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. Male hamsters, and to a greater extent older male hamsters, display an impaired capacity to recover from illness and a delay in viral clearance compared to females. Lastly, route of exposure, sex, and age were found to influence the nature of the host inflammatory cytokine response, but they had a minimal effect on both the quality and durability of the humoral immune response as well as the susceptibility of hamsters to SARS-CoV-2 re-infection. Together, these data indicate that the route of exposure, sex, and age have a meaningful impact SARS-CoV-2 pathogenesis in hamsters and that these variables should be considered when designing pre-clinical challenge studies.