How ‘killer’ T cells could boost COVID immunity in face of new variants
T cells could also be more resistant than antibodies to threats posed by emerging #variants. Studies by Sette and his colleagues have shown that people who have been infected with #SARS-CoV-2 typically generate T cells that target at least 15–20 different fragments of coronavirus proteins1. But which protein snippets are used as targets can vary widely from person to person, meaning that a population will generate a large variety of T cells that could snare a virus. “That makes it very hard for the virus to mutate to escape cell recognition,” says Sette, “unlike the situation for antibodies.”
So when laboratory tests showed that the 501Y.V2 variant identified in South Africa (also called B.1.351) is partially resistant to antibodies raised against previous coronavirus variants, researchers wondered whether T cells could be less vulnerable to its mutations.
Early results suggest that this might be the case. In a preprint published on 9 February, researchers found that most T-cell responses to coronavirus vaccination or previous infection do not target regions that were mutated in two recently discovered variants, including 501Y.V22. Sette says that his group also has preliminary evidence that the vast majority of T-cell responses are unlikely to be affected by the mutations.
Some coronavirus vaccine developers are already looking at ways to develop next-generation vaccines that stimulate T cells more effectively. Antibodies detect only proteins outside cells, and many coronavirus vaccines target a protein called spike that decorates the surface of the virus. But the spike protein is “quite variable”, suggesting that it might be prone to mutating, says Karlsson, and raising the risk that emerging variants will be able to evade antibody detection.
T cells, by contrast, can target viral proteins expressed inside infected cells, and some of those proteins are very stable, she says. This raises the possibility of designing vaccines against proteins that mutate less frequently than spike, and incorporating targets from multiple proteins into one vaccine.