A ribavirin-induced ORF2 single-nucleotide variant produces defective hepatitis E virus particles with immune decoy function

Hepatitis E virus (HEV) is the causative agent of hepatitis E in humans and is the leading cause of enterically transmitted viral hepatitis worldwide. Ribavirin (RBV) is currently the only treatment option for many patients; however, cases of treatment failures or posttreatment relapses have been frequently reported. RBV therapy was shown to be associated with an increase in HEV genome heterogeneity and the emergence of distinct HEV variants. In this study, we analyzed the impact of eight patient-derived open reading frame 2 (ORF2) single-nucleotide variants (SNVs), which occurred under RBV treatment, on the replication cycle and pathogenesis of HEV. The parental HEV strain and seven ORF2 variants showed comparable levels of RNA replication in human hepatoma cells and primary human hepatocytes. However, a P79S ORF2 variant demonstrated reduced RNA copy numbers released in the supernatant and an impairment in the production of infectious particles. Biophysical and biochemical characterization revealed that this SNV caused defective, smaller HEV particles with a loss of infectiousness. Furthermore, the P79S variant displayed an altered subcellular distribution of the ORF2 protein and was able to interfere with antibody-mediated neutralization of HEV in a competition assay. In conclusion, an SNV in the HEV ORF2 could be identified that resulted in altered virus particles that were noninfectious in vitro and in vivo, but could potentially serve as immune decoys. These findings provide insights in understanding the biology of circulating HEV variants and may guide development of personalized antiviral strategies in the future.


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