Cross-species transmission of zoonotic coronaviruses (CoVs) can result in pandemic disease outbreaks. Middle East respiratory syndrome CoV (MERS-CoV), identified in 2012, has caused 182 cases to date, with ~43% mortality, and no small animal model has been reported. MERS-CoV and Pipistrellus bat coronavirus (BtCoV) strain HKU5 of Betacoronavirus (β-CoV) subgroup 2c share >65% identity at the amino acid level in several regions, including nonstructural protein 5 (nsp5) and the nucleocapsid (N) protein, which are significant drug and vaccine targets. BtCoV HKU5 has been described in silico but has not been shown to replicate in culture, thus hampering drug and vaccine studies against subgroup 2c β-CoVs. We report the synthetic reconstruction and testing of BtCoV HKU5 containing the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)-CoV spike (S) glycoprotein ectodomain (BtCoV HKU5-SE). This virus replicates efficiently in cell culture and in young and aged mice, where the virus targets airway and alveolar epithelial cells. Unlike some subgroup 2b SARS-CoV vaccines that elicit a strong eosinophilia following challenge, we demonstrate that BtCoV HKU5 and MERS-CoV N-expressing Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus replicon particle (VRP) vaccines do not cause extensive eosinophilia following BtCoV HKU5-SE challenge. Passage of BtCoV HKU5-SE in young mice resulted in enhanced virulence, causing 20% weight loss, diffuse alveolar damage, and hyaline membrane formation in aged mice. Passaged virus was characterized by mutations in the nsp13, nsp14, open reading frame 5 (ORF5) and M genes. Finally, we identified an inhibitor active against the nsp5 proteases of subgroup 2c β-CoVs. Synthetic-genome platforms capable of reconstituting emerging zoonotic viral pathogens or their phylogenetic relatives provide new strategies for identifying broad-based therapeutics, evaluating vaccine outcomes, and studying viral pathogenesis.
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