Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)-specific cellular immune response has been shown to play a critical role in preventing severe illness or death in patients infected with SARS-CoV-2 or its variants. Given the multiple T-cell epitopes shared by wild-type virus and its variants, we hypothesized that vaccines that target multiple T-cell epitopes of SARS-CoV-2 may provide a “universal protection” against the wild-type virus as well as its variants, even the heavily mutated ones. To test this, we assessed SARS-CoV-2-specific T-cell precursors in healthy individuals using overlapping peptide pools of SARS-CoV-2 structural and functional proteins, including spike (S), membrane (M), envelope (E), nucleocapsid (N), and protease (P) proteins as target antigens. Diverse T-cell precursor frequencies specific to these viral antigens were detected in healthy individuals, including high, medium, low, and no responders. This was further confirmed by efficient induction of anti-SARS-CoV-2 T-cell immune responses using ex vivo
dendritic cell (DC)/T cell coculture. The results demonstrated T-cell responses consistent with the precursor frequencies of each of the individuals tested. Importantly, the combination of all five viral peptide pools induced the strongest cellular immune response, and further, after a DC-peptides re-stimulation, even the no responders developed an increased anti-viral T-cell response. These analyses recapitulate the presence of a broad anti-SARS-CoV-2 cellular immunity even in an immune naïve population, which could be enhanced by antigen presenting cells presenting the overlapping antigenic peptides. Given the critical role of cellular immunity in COVID-19 protection, these results have important implications for vaccine design and immunotherapy in fighting SARS-CoV-2 and its variants.
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