The efficacy of virus-specific T cells in clearing pathogens involves a fine balance between antiviral and inflammatory features. SARS-CoV-2-specific T cells in individuals who clear SARS-CoV-2 without symptoms could reveal nonpathological yet protective characteristics. We longitudinally studied SARS-CoV-2-specific T cells in a cohort of asymptomatic (n = 85) and symptomatic (n = 75) COVID-19 patients after seroconversion. We quantified T cells reactive to structural proteins (M, NP, and Spike) using ELISpot and cytokine secretion in whole blood. Frequencies of SARS-CoV-2-specific T cells were similar between asymptomatic and symptomatic individuals, but the former showed an increased IFN-γ and IL-2 production. This was associated with a proportional secretion of IL-10 and proinflammatory cytokines (IL-6, TNF-α, and IL-1β) only in asymptomatic infection, while a disproportionate secretion of inflammatory cytokines was triggered by SARS-CoV-2-specific T cell activation in symptomatic individuals. Thus, asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2-infected individuals are not characterized by weak antiviral immunity; on the contrary, they mount a highly functional virus-specific cellular immune response.
© 2021 Le Bert et al.