Analysis of the Long-Term Impact on Cellular Immunity in COVID-19-Recovered Individuals Reveals a Profound NKT Cell Impairment

mBio. 2021 Apr 27;12(2):e00085-21. doi: 10.1128/mBio.00085-21.


The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) affected over 120 million people and killed over 2.7 million individuals by March 2021. While acute and intermediate interactions between SARS-CoV-2 and the immune system have been studied extensively, long-term impacts on the cellular immune system remain to be analyzed. Here, we comprehensively characterized immunological changes in peripheral blood mononuclear cells in 49 COVID-19-convalescent individuals (CI) in comparison to 27 matched SARS-CoV-2-unexposed individuals (UI). Despite recovery from the disease for more than 2 months, CI showed significant decreases in frequencies of invariant NKT and NKT-like cells compared to UI. Concomitant with the decrease in NKT-like cells, an increase in the percentage of annexin V and 7-aminoactinomycin D (7-AAD) double-positive NKT-like cells was detected, suggesting that the reduction in NKT-like cells results from cell death months after recovery. Significant increases in regulatory T cell frequencies and TIM-3 expression on CD4 and CD8 T cells were also observed in CI, while the cytotoxic potential of T cells and NKT-like cells, defined by granzyme B (GzmB) expression, was significantly diminished. However, both CD4 and CD8 T cells of CI showed increased Ki67 expression and were fully able to proliferate and produce effector cytokines upon T cell receptor (TCR) stimulation. Collectively, we provide a comprehensive characterization of immune signatures in patients recovering from SARS-CoV-2 infection, suggesting that the cellular immune system of COVID-19 patients is still under a sustained influence even months after the recovery from disease.IMPORTANCE Wuhan was the very first city hit by SARS-CoV-2. Accordingly, the patients who experienced the longest phase of convalescence following COVID-19 reside here. This enabled us to investigate the "immunological scar" left by SARS-CoV-2 on cellular immunity after recovery from the disease. In this study, we characterized the long-term impact of SARS-CoV-2 infection on the immune system and provide a comprehensive picture of cellular immunity of a convalescent COVID-19 patient cohort with the longest recovery time. We revealed that the cellular immune system of COVID-19 patients is still under a sustained influence even months after the recovery from disease; in particular, a profound NKT cell impairment was found in the convalescent phase of COVID-19.

Keywords: COVID-19; NKT cell; SARS-CoV-2; cellular immunity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Apoptosis
  • COVID-19 / diagnosis
  • COVID-19 / immunology*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Convalescence*
  • Cytokines / immunology
  • Cytotoxicity, Immunologic
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Cellular*
  • Leukocytes, Mononuclear / immunology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Natural Killer T-Cells / immunology*
  • Phenotype
  • SARS-CoV-2 / immunology
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / immunology


  • Cytokines