In our quest to stop the COVID-19 pandemic by vaccination, we have been myopically focussed on inducing antibodies against the spike protein. As variants of SARS-CoV-2 have emerged that reduce the ability of such antibodies to block infection, concern has arisen that we will not be able to halt the disease. Such concerns appear to ignore the other important arm of the adaptive immune response: T cells.
Anti-viral antibodies can prevent infection of cells, but when antibody titers are low – years after infection or vaccination – some cells will inevitably be infected. In this case, T cells come to the rescue. Cytotoxic T cells can sense that a cell is infected and kill it (illustrated). T cells sense infected cells by virtue of viral peptides that are presented by major histocompatibility molecules on the plasma membrane. Such T cell peptides may be produced from nearly any viral protein. In contrast, only certain viral proteins, like the spike of SARS-CoV-2, can give rise to antibodies that block infection.
The T cell response to SARS-CoV-2 infection has been largely ignored for the past year. Certainly, some laboratories have studied T cell responses in patients, and the vaccine makers have dutifully included them along with assays for neutralizing antibodies. But the dialogue has never included T cells as important for resolving disease – but they are for most viral infections. Because T cells can kill virus infected cells, they can help prevent disease and end the infection.
The recent finding that amino acid changes in the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern do not impact T cell reactivity is very good news. In this study, the authors synthesized short peptides covering the entire proteome of multiple SARS-CoV-2 isolates, including the original Wuhan strain, and variants B.1.1.7, B.1.351, P.1, and CAL.20C. They found little difference in the ability of T cells from either convalescent or vaccinated patients to recognize peptides from these viruses. This result means that the amino acid changes in the variants are not likely to impact the ability of T cells to clear infection.
This observation explains why some COVID-19 vaccines have effectively prevented hospitalization and death even in regions where variants circulate widely. In some cases the ability of sera from vaccinated individuals have reduced ability to neutralize infection with some variants. Nevertheless, the vaccines prevent severe COVID-19 and death because T cells can still recognize variant virus-infected cells and clear them.
It’s highly unlikely that vaccination will prevent infection with SARS-CoV-2. Antibody levels rapidly decline after infection or vaccination, especially in the respiratory mucosa. When a virus enters the nasopharynx of an immune individual, it will encounter little antibody opposition and will initiate an infection. However memory B and T cells will spring into action and within a few days produce virus-specific antibodies and T cells. The antibodies will limit infection while the T cells will clear the virus-infected cells. The result is a mild or asymptomatic infection that likely is not transmitted to others.
The recent observations that vaccination appears to prevent asymptomatic infections is a red herring. These studies are being done soon after vaccination when antibody levels in serum and mucosa are high. If these studies were done a year after immunization, the results would be quite different.
Now imagine that you are fully vaccinated and become infected with a SARS-CoV-2 variant. The virus may begin to reproduce rather well in the nasopharynx even in the face of a memory response, because the antibodies are just not good enough to block infection. T cells to the rescue: the T cell epitopes on the surface of the infected cells are readily recognized because they are mainly the same in the variants as in the ancestral strain of SARS-CoV-2. You may have a mild infection but you will not be hospitalized or die. Isn’t that the goal of vaccination?
Why don’t T cell epitopes change as do B cell (antibody) epitopes? A B cell epitope is the same in everyone and so if a virus emerges with a slightly different epitope, it will evade antibody in anyone infected with that virus. T cell epitopes are different. T cell epitopes are presented to T cells on the infected cell surface by MHC molecules, which are encoded by highly polymorphic genes. That means that your MHC is likely different from mine, and so will be the viral peptides displayed in them. So if a T cell epitope varies during your infection, it won’t matter to other people – their infected cells will be displaying different T cell peptides.
It is possible that SARS-CoV-2 will continue to produce altered spike proteins that will completely evade antibody neutralization. In this case T cells might not be enough to prevent severe disease – they could be overwhelmed by so many infected cells. Our rush to make vaccines – understandable given the urgency – have led us to such a situation. Most of the vaccines were based only on the spike protein. If we change the spike protein to accommodate variants, we might get in a never-ending cycle of changing COVID-19 vaccines on a regular basis. A better approach would be to produce second-generation COVID vaccines that include other viral proteins besides spike protein. Inactivated and attenuated vaccines fall into this category; another solution would be to modify authorized mRNA vaccines to encode additional viral proteins.