Currently, we have a limited toolset available for visualizing SARS-CoV-2 in cells and tissues, particularly in tissues from patients who died from COVID-19. Here, we present a platform for preparing autopsy tissue to visualize SARS. We found distinct subcellular localization patterns of the ORF1a and N regions, consistent with phagocytosis of infected cells.
The widespread Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) is caused by infection with the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Currently, we have a limited toolset available for visualizing SARS-CoV-2 in cells and tissues, particularly in tissues from patients who died from COVID-19. Generally, single-molecule RNA FISH techniques have shown mixed results in formalin fixed paraffin embedded tissues such as those preserved from human autopsies. Here, we present a platform for preparing autopsy tissue for visualizing SARS-CoV-2 RNA using RNA FISH with amplification by hybridization chain reaction (HCR). We developed probe sets that target different regions of SARS-CoV-2 (including ORF1a and N) as well as probe sets that specifically target SARS-CoV-2 subgenomic mRNAs. We validated these probe sets in cell culture and tissues (lung, lymph node, and placenta) from infected patients. Using this technology, we observe distinct subcellular localization patterns of the ORF1a and N regions, with the ORF1a concentrated around the nucleus and the N showing a diffuse distribution across the cytoplasm. In human lung tissue, we performed multiplexed RNA FISH HCR for SARS-CoV-2 and cell-type specific marker genes. We found viral RNA in cells containing the alveolar type 2 (AT2) cell marker gene (SFTPC) and the alveolar macrophage marker gene (MARCO), but did not identify viral RNA in cells containing the alveolar type 1 (AT1) cell marker gene (AGER). Moreover, we observed distinct subcellular localization patterns of viral RNA in AT2 cells and alveolar macrophages, consistent with phagocytosis of infected cells. In sum, we demonstrate the use of RNA FISH HCR for visualizing different RNA species from SARS-CoV-2 in cell lines and FFPE autopsy specimens. Furthermore, we multiplex this assay with probes for cellular genes to determine what cell-types are infected within the lung. We anticipate that this platform could be broadly useful for studying SARS-CoV-2 pathology in tissues as well as extended for other applications including investigating the viral life cycle, viral diagnostics, and drug screening.