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mRNA vaccine-induced T cells respond identically to SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern but differ in longevity and homing properties depending on prior infection status.

Abstract

While mRNA vaccines are proving highly efficacious against SARS-CoV-2, it is important to determine how booster doses and prior infection influence the immune defense they elicit, and whether they protect against variants. Focusing on the T cell response, we conducted a longitudinal study of infection-naïve and COVID-19 convalescent donors before vaccination and after their first and second vaccine doses, using a high-parameter CyTOF analysis to phenotype their SARS-CoV-2-specific T cells. Vaccine-elicited spike-specific T cells responded similarly to stimulation by spike epitopes from the ancestral, B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 variant strains, both in terms of cell numbers and phenotypes. In infection-naïve individuals, the second dose boosted the quantity and altered the phenotypic properties of SARS-CoV-2-specific T cells, while in convalescents the second dose changed neither. Spike-specific T cells from convalescent vaccinees differed strikingly from those of infection-naïve vaccinees, with phenotypic features suggesting superior long-term persistence and ability to home to the respiratory tract including the nasopharynx. These results provide reassurance that vaccine-elicited T cells respond robustly to emerging viral variants, confirm that convalescents may not need a second vaccine dose, and suggest that vaccinated convalescents may have more persistent nasopharynx-homing SARS-CoV-2-specific T cells compared to their infection-naïve counterparts.

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