Background: The recently emerged variants of the severe acute
respiratory coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) pose a threat to public health.
Understanding the pathogenicity of these variants is a salient factor in the
development of effective SARS-CoV-2 therapeutics. This study aimed to compare the
expression patterns of genes involved in immune responses in K18-hACE2 mice
infected with the wild-type, Delta, and Omicron SARS-CoV-2 variants.
Methods: K18-hACE2 mice were intranasally infected with either wild-type
(B.1), Delta (B.1.617.2), or Omicron (B.1.1.529) variants. On day 6
post-infection, lung, brain, and kidney tissues were collected from each
variant-infected group. The mRNA expression levels of 39 immune response genes in
all three groups were compared by RT-qPCR. Viral titers were measured using the
median tissue culture infectious dose (TCID) assay and expressed as Log10
TCID/0.1 g. The statistical significance of the differences in gene
expression was determined by one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) (alpha = 0.05).
Results: The expression of toll-like receptors (TLRs) was upregulated in
the lung and brain tissues of the wild-type- and Delta-infected groups but not in
those of the Omicron-infected group. The highest expression of cytokines,
including interleukin (IL)-1, IL-1,
IL-17, interferon, and tumor necrosis factors, was observed in
the lungs of mice infected with the wild-type variant. Additionally, CCL4,
CCL11, CXCL9, and CXCL10 were upregulated (3-fold)
in wild-type-infected mice, with markedly higher expressions in the brain than in the
lungs. Most of the apoptotic factors were mainly expressed in the brain tissues
of Omicron-infected mice (caspase 8, caspase 9, p53,
Bax, Bak, BCL-2, and Bcl-XL), whereas neither
the lung nor kidney showed more than 3-fold upregulation of these apoptotic
factors. Conclusions: Collectively, our findings revealed that the
wild-type SARS-CoV-2 variant exhibited the highest pathogenicity,
followed by the Delta variant, then the Omicron variant.