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New therapeutic targets are a valuable resource in the struggle to reduce the morbidity and mortality associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have identified risk loci, but some loci are associated with co-morbidities and are not specific to host-virus interactions. Here, we identify and experimentally validate a link between reduced expression of EXOSC2 and reduced SARS-CoV-2 replication. EXOSC2 was one of 332 host proteins examined, all of which interact directly with SARS-CoV-2 proteins; EXOSC2 interacts with Nsp8 which forms part of the viral RNA polymerase. Lung-specific eQTLs were identified from GTEx (v7) for each of the 332 host proteins. Aggregating COVID-19 GWAS statistics for gene-specific eQTLs revealed an association between increased expression of EXOSC2 and higher risk of clinical COVID-19 which survived stringent multiple testing correction. EXOSC2 is a component of the RNA exosome and indeed, LC-MS/MS analysis of protein pulldowns demonstrated an interaction between the SARS-CoV-2 RNA polymerase and the majority of human RNA exosome components. CRISPR/Cas9 introduction of nonsense mutations within EXOSC2 in Calu-3 cells reduced EXOSC2 protein expression, impeded SARS-CoV-2 replication and upregulated oligoadenylate synthase ( OAS) genes, which have been linked to a successful immune response against SARS-CoV-2. Reduced EXOSC2 expression did not reduce cellular viability. OAS gene expression changes occurred independent of infection and in the absence of significant upregulation of other interferon-stimulated genes (ISGs). Targeted depletion or functional inhibition of EXOSC2 may be a safe and effective strategy to protect at-risk individuals against clinical COVID-19.

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