Up to 81% of of the population can mount a strong response to COVID-19 without ever having been exposed to it before:
Cross-reactive SARS-CoV-2 T-cell epitopes revealed preexisting T-cell responses in 81% of unexposed individuals, and validation of similarity to common cold human coronaviruses provided a functional basis for postulated heterologous immunity
The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic calls for the rapid development of diagnostic, preventive, and therapeutic approaches. CD4+ and CD8+ T cell-mediated immunity is central for control of and protection from viral infections[1-3]. A prerequisite to characterize T-cell immunity, but also for the development of vaccines and immunotherapies, is the identification of the exact viral T-cell epitopes presented on human leukocyte antigens (HLA)[2-8]. This is the first work identifying and characterizing SARS-CoV-2-specific and cross-reactive HLA class I and HLA-DR T-cell epitopes in SARS-CoV-2 convalescents (n = 180) as well as unexposed individuals (n = 185) and confirming their relevance for immunity and COVID-19 disease course. SARS-CoV-2-specific T-cell epitopes enabled detection of post-infectious T-cell immunity, even in seronegative convalescents. Cross-reactive SARS-CoV-2 T-cell epitopes revealed preexisting T-cell responses in 81% of unexposed individuals, and validation of similarity to common cold human coronaviruses provided a functional basis for postulated heterologous immunity in SARS-CoV-2 infection[10,11]. Intensity of T-cell responses and recognition rate of T-cell epitopes was significantly higher in the convalescent donors compared to unexposed individuals, suggesting that not only expansion, but also diversity spread of SARS-CoV-2 T-cell responses occur upon active infection. Whereas anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibody levels were associated with severity of symptoms in our SARS-CoV-2 donors, intensity of T-cell responses did not negatively affect COVID-19 severity. Rather, diversity of SARS-CoV-2 T-cell responses was increased in case of mild symptoms of COVID-19, providing evidence that development of immunity requires recognition of multiple SARS-CoV-2 epitopes. Together, the specific and cross-reactive SARS-CoV-2 T-cell epitopes identified in this work enable the identification of heterologous and post-infectious T-cell immunity and facilitate the development of diagnostic, preventive, and therapeutic measures for COVID-19.