Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is the causative agent for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) that emerged in human populations recently. Severely ill COVID-19 patients exhibit the elevation of proinflammatory cytokines, and such an unbalanced production of proinflammatory cytokines is linked to acute respiratory distress syndrome with high mortality in COVID-19 patients. Our study provides evidence that the ORF3a, M, ORF7a, and N proteins of SARS-CoV-2 were NF-κB activators. The viral sequence from infected zoo lions belonged to clade V, and a single mutation of G251V is found for ORF3a gene compared to all other clades. No significant functional difference was found for clade V ORF3a, indicating the NF-κB activation is conserved among COVID-19 variants. Of the four viral proteins, the ORF7a protein induced the NF-κB dictated proinflammatory cytokines including IL-1α, IL-1β, IL-6, IL-8, IL-10, TNF-α, and IFNβ. The ORF7a protein also induced IL-3, IL-4, IL-7, IL-23. Of 15 different chemokines examined in the study, CCL11, CCL17, CCL19, CCL20, CCL21, CCL22, CCL25, CCL26, CCL27, and CXCL9 were significantly upregulated by ORF7. These cytokines and chemokines were frequently elevated in severely ill COVID-19 patients. Our data provide an insight into how SARS-CoV-2 modulates NF-κB signaling and inflammatory cytokine expressions. The ORF7a protein may be a desirable target for strategic developments to minimize uncontrolled inflammation in COVID-19 patients.
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