Substantial clinical evidence supports the notion that ciliary function in the airways is important in COVID-19 pathogenesis. Although ciliary damage has been observed in both in vitro and in vivo models, the extent or nature of impairment of mucociliary transport (MCT) in in vivo models remains unknown. We hypothesize that SARS-CoV-2 infection results in MCT deficiency in the airways of golden Syrian hamsters that precedes pathological injury in lung parenchyma. Micro-optical coherence tomography was used to quantitate functional changes in the MCT apparatus. Both genomic and subgenomic viral RNA pathological and physiological changes were monitored in parallel. We show that SARS-CoV-2 infection caused a 67% decrease in MCT rate as early as 2 days postinfection (dpi) in hamsters, principally due to 79% diminished airway coverage of motile cilia. Correlating quantitation of physiological, virological, and pathological changes reveals steadily descending infection from the upper airways to lower airways to lung parenchyma within 7 dpi. Our results indicate that functional deficits of the MCT apparatus are a key aspect of COVID-19 pathogenesis, may extend viral retention, and could pose a risk factor for secondary infection. Clinically, monitoring abnormal ciliated cell function may indicate disease progression. Therapies directed toward the MCT apparatus deserve further investigation.


Qian Li, Kadambari Vijaykumar, Scott E. Phillips, Shah S. Hussain, Nha V. Huynh, Courtney M. Fernandez-Petty, Jacelyn E. Peabody Lever, Jeremy B. Foote, Janna Ren, Javier Campos-Gómez, Farah Abou Daya, Nathaniel W. Hubbs, Harrison Kim, Ezinwanne Onuoha, Evan R. Boitet, Lianwu Fu, Hui Min Leung, Linhui Yu, Thomas W. Detchemendy, Levi T. Schaefers, Jennifer L. Tipper, Lloyd J. Edwards, Sixto M. Leal Jr., Kevin S. Harrod, Guillermo J. Tearney, Steven M. Rowe


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