Previous research focused on one group of antibodies that target the most obvious part of the coronavirus’s spike protein, called the receptor-binding domain (RBD). Because the RBD is the part of the spike that attaches directly to human cells and enables the virus to infect them, it was rightly assumed to be a primary target of the immune system. But, testing blood plasma samples from four people who recovered from SARS-CoV-2 infections, the researchers found that most of the antibodies circulating in the blood — on average, about 84% — target areas of the viral spike protein outside the RBD — and, apparently, for good reason.
“We found these antibodies are painting the entire spike, both the arc and the stalk of the spike protein, which looks a bit like an umbrella,” [...] “The immune system sees the entire spike and tries to neutralize it.”
Many of these non-RBD-directed antibodies the team identified act as a potent weapon against the virus by targeting a region in a part of the spike protein located in what would be the umbrella’s canopy called the N-terminal domain (NTD). These antibodies neutralize the virus in cell cultures and were shown to prevent a lethal mouse-adapted version of the virus from infecting mice.
The NTD is also a part of the viral spike protein that mutates frequently, especially in several variants of concern. This suggests that one reason these #variants are so effective at evading our immune systems is that they can mutate around one of the most common and potent types of antibody in our arsenals.
Despite these maneuvers by SARS-CoV-2, the researchers said about 40% of the circulating antibodies target the stalk of the spike protein, called the S2 subunit, which is also a part that the virus does not seem able to change easily.
“That’s reassuring,” Ippolito said. “That’s an advantage our immune system has. It also means our current vaccines are eliciting antibodies targeting that S2 subunit, which are likely providing another layer of protection against the virus.”