Studies had shown that severe cases of COVID-19 tend to have high viral loads and correlate with functional impairment of cytotoxic lymphocytes, and the features of cytokine storm syndrome are similar to manifestations of severe influenza that have been partially explained by suppressed perforin expression. To test the hypothesis that the spike glycoprotein from SARS-CoV-2 may inhibit the perforin expression, we determined the kinetics of immune responses of CD8+ T cells to low dose (LD) or high dose (HD) of S1 stimulation through an in vitro dendritic cell (DC)-T cell model over seven days of incubation. The cytotoxic activity and intracellular perforin expression of CD8+ T cells induced by HD-S1-presenting DCs were aberrantly lower than those induced by LD-S1-presenting DCs from day three of incubation. Discrepantly, the levels of lymphoproliferation and cytokine (interferon-γ and tumor necrosis factor-α) production induced by HD-S1-presenting DCs were significantly higher than those induced by LD-S1-presenting DCs from day four. The dose-related responses between doses of S1 and intracellular perforin expression showed a significant linear correlation with a negative slope. In conclusion, the S1 subunit may suppress the perforin expression in CD8+ T cells to decrease the cytotoxic capacity to kill spike-presenting cells in a dose-dependent manner; the persistence of antigen presentation may result in an overproduction of interferon-γ and subsequent proinflammatory cytokines. That may help explain the insufficient cytotoxicity against high quantities of viruses or highly replicated strains of SARS-CoV-2 in severe cases of COVID-19.
Keywords: Covid-19; SARS-CoV-2; cytokine storm syndrome; cytotoxicity; lymphoproliferation; perforin.