A Highly Specific Assay for the Detection of SARS-CoV-2-Reactive CD4 + and CD8 + T Cells in COVID-19 Patients.

February 01, 2021

Henning Zelba1, David Worbs2, Johannes Harter2, Natalia Pieper2, Christina Kyzirakos-Feger3, Simone Kayser3, Marcel Seibold3, Oliver Bartsch3, Jiri Ködding2, Saskia Biskup3


Gaining detailed insights into the role of host immune responses in viral clearance is critical for understanding COVID-19 pathogenesis and future treatment strategies. Although studies analyzing humoral immune responses against SARS-CoV-2 were available rather early during the pandemic, cellular immunity came into focus of investigations just recently. For the present work, we have adapted a protocol designed for the detection of rare neoantigen-specific memory T cells in cancer patients for studying cellular immune responses against SARS-CoV-2. Both CD4+ and CD8+ T cells were detected after 6 d of in vitro expansion using overlapping peptide libraries representing the whole viral protein. The assay readout was an intracellular cytokine staining and flow cytometric analysis detecting four functional markers simultaneously (CD154, TNF, IL-2, and IFN-γ). We were able to detect SARS-CoV-2-specific T cells in 10 of 10 COVID-19 patients with mild symptoms. All patients had reactive T cells against at least 1 of 12 analyzed viral Ags, and all patients had Spike-specific T cells. Although some Ags were detected by CD4+ and CD8+ T cells, VME1 was mainly recognized by CD4+ T cells. Strikingly, we were not able to detect SARS-CoV-2-specific T cells in 18 unexposed healthy individuals. When we stimulated the same samples overnight, we measured significant numbers of cytokine-producing cells even in unexposed individuals. Our comparison showed that the stimulation conditions can profoundly impact the activation readout in unexposed individuals. We are presenting a highly specific diagnostic tool for the detection of SARS-CoV-2-reactive T cells.