Evidence for Deleterious Antigenic Imprinting in SARS-CoV-2 Immune Response

bioRxiv. 2021 Jun 9;2021.05.21.445201. doi: 10.1101/2021.05.21.445201. Preprint


A previous report demonstrated the strong association between the presence of antibodies binding to an epitope region from SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid, termed Ep9, and COVID-19 disease severity. Patients with anti-Ep9 antibodies (Abs) had hallmarks of antigenic imprinting (AIM), including early IgG upregulation and cytokine-associated injury. Thus, the immunological memory of a previous infection was hypothesized to drive formation of suboptimal anti-Ep9 Abs in severe COVID-19 infections. This study identifies a putative primary antigen capable of stimulating production of cross-reactive, anti-Ep9 Abs. Binding assays with patient blood samples directly show cross-reactivity between Abs binding to Ep9 and only one bioinformatics-derived, homologous potential antigen, a sequence derived from the neuraminidase protein of H3N2 Influenza A virus. This cross-reactive binding is highly influenza strain specific and sensitive to even single amino acid changes in epitope sequence. The neuraminidase protein is not present in the influenza vaccine, and the anti-Ep9 Abs likely resulted from the widespread influenza infection in 2014. Therefore, AIM from a previous infection could underlie some cases of COVID-19 disease severity.

Importance: Infections with SARS-COV-2 result in diverse disease outcomes, ranging from asymptomatic to fatal. The mechanisms underlying different disease outcomes remain largely unexplained. Previously, our laboratory identified a strong association between the presence of an antibody and increased disease severity in a subset of COVID-19 patients. Here, we report that this severity-associated antibody cross-reacts with viral proteins from an influenza A viral strain from 2014. Therefore, we speculate that antibodies generated against previous infections, like the 2014 influenza A, play a significant role in directing some peoples’ immune responses against SARS-COV-2. Such understanding of the sources and drivers of COVID-19 disease severity can help early identification and pre-emptive treatment.

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