SARS-CoV-2 causes COVID-19, a predominantly pulmonary disease characterized by a burst of pro-inflammatory cytokines and an increase in free iron. The viral glycoprotein Spike mediates fusion to the host cell membrane, but its role as a virulence factor is largely unknown. Recently, the antiviral activity of lactoferrin against SARS-CoV-2 was demonstrated in vitro and shown to occur via binding to cell surface receptors, and its putative interaction with Spike was suggested by in silico analyses. We investigated the anti-SARS-CoV-2 activity of bovine and human lactoferrins in epithelial and macrophagic cells using a Spike-decorated pseudovirus. Lactoferrin inhibited pseudoviral fusion and counteracted the deleterious effects of Spike on iron and inflammatory homeostasis by restoring basal levels of iron-handling proteins and of proinflammatory cytokines IL-1 beta and IL-6. Using pull-down assays, we experimentally proved for the first time that lactoferrin binds to Spike, immediately suggesting a mechanism for the observed effects. The contribution of transferrin receptor 1 to Spike-mediated cell fusion was also experimentally demonstrated. In silico analyses showed that lactoferrin interacts with transferrin receptor 1, suggesting a multifaceted mechanism of action for lactoferrin. Our results give hope for the use of bovine lactoferrin, already available as a nutraceutical, as an adjuvant to standard therapies in COVID-19.
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