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An HERV-W ENV transcription in atypical memory B cells linked to COVID-19 evolution and risk for long COVID can express the encoded protein from a ribosome readthrough of mRNA from chromosome X.


The human genome comprises 8% of endogenous retroviruses (HERVs). Though HERVS contribute to physiological functions, copies retained pathogenic potential. The HERV-W ENV protein was shown expressed in patients with worse COVID-19 symptoms and post-COVID syndrome. A significant detection of the mRNA encoding HERV-W ENV from patients with COVID-19 in B cells from RNAseq reads obtained from peripheral blond mononuclear cells. This data stratified with increased COVID-19 symptoms or with post-acute sequelae of COVID-19 (long COVID) after 3 months. The HERV-W ENV-U3R RNA was confirmed to display the best alignment with chromosome X ERVWE2 locus. However, a stop codon precluding its translation was re-addressed after recent understandings of ribosome readthrough mechanisms. Experimental results evidenced that this HERV gene can effectively express a full-length protein in the presence of molecules allowing translation via a readthrough mechanism at the ribosome level. Results not only confirm HERV-W ENV RNA origin in these patients, but show for the first time how a defective HERV copy can be translated into a complete protein when specific factors make it possible at the ribosome level. The present proof of concept now requires further studies to identify the factors involved in this newly understood mechanism, following SARS-CoV-2 exposure.