Healthy donor T cell responses to common cold coronaviruses and SARS-CoV-2

J Clin Invest. 2020 Dec 1;130(12):6631-6638. doi: 10.1172/JCI143120.


BACKGROUNDT cell responses to the common cold coronaviruses have not been well characterized. Preexisting T cell immunity to severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has been reported, and a recent study suggested that this immunity was due to cross-recognition of the novel coronavirus by T cells specific for the common cold coronaviruses.METHODSWe used the enzyme-linked immunospot (ELISPOT) assay to characterize the T cell responses against peptide pools derived from the spike protein of 3 common cold coronaviruses (HCoV-229E, HCoV-NL63, and HCoV-OC43) and SARS-CoV-2 in 21 healthy donors (HDs) who were seronegative for SARS-CoV-2 and had no known exposure to the virus. An in vitro expansion culture assay was also used to analyze memory T cell responses.RESULTSWe found responses to the spike protein of the 3 common cold coronaviruses in many of the donors. We then focused on HCoV-NL63 and detected broad T cell responses to the spike protein and identified 22 targeted peptides. Interestingly, only 1 study participant had a significant response to SARS-CoV-2 spike or nucleocapsid protein in the ELISPOT assay. In vitro expansion studies suggested that T cells specific for the HCoV-NL63 spike protein in this individual could also recognize SARS-CoV-2 spike protein peptide pools.CONCLUSIONHDs have circulating T cells specific for the spike proteins of HCoV-NL63, HCoV-229E, and HCoV-OC43. T cell responses to SARS-CoV-2 spike and nucleocapsid proteins were present in only 1 participant and were potentially the result of cross-recognition by T cells specific for the common cold coronaviruses. Further studies are needed to determine whether this cross-recognition influences coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outcomes.

Keywords: Adaptive immunity; Immunology; Infectious disease; T cells.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • COVID-19 / immunology*
  • Common Cold / immunology*
  • Coronavirus 229E, Human / immunology*
  • Coronavirus NL63, Human / immunology*
  • Coronavirus OC43, Human / immunology*
  • Cross Reactions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Cellular*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • SARS-CoV-2 / immunology*
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology*