CD4+ T cells reactive against SARS-CoV-2 can be found in unexposed individuals, and these are suggested to arise in response to common cold coronavirus (CCCoV) infection. Here, we utilized SARS-CoV-2-reactive CD4+ T cell enrichment to examine the antigen avidity and clonality of these cells, as well as the relative contribution of CCCoV cross-reactivity. SARS-CoV-2-reactive CD4+ memory T cells were present in virtually all unexposed individuals examined, displaying low functional avidity and multiple, highly variable cross-reactivities that were not restricted to CCCoVs. SARS-CoV-2-reactive CD4+ T cells from COVID-19 patients lacked cross-reactivity to CCCoVs, irrespective of strong memory T cell responses against CCCoV in all donors analyzed. In severe but not mild COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2-specific T cells displayed low functional avidity and clonality, despite increased frequencies. Our findings identify low-avidity CD4+ T cell responses as a hallmark of severe COVID-19 and argue against a protective role for CCCoV-reactive T cells in SARS-CoV-2 infection.
Keywords: ARTE; COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; T cell cross-reactivity; antigen-reactive T cell enrichment; antigen-specific T cells; common cold coronavirus; human coronavirus; pre-existing memory.
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