Analysis of the Neutralizing Activity of Antibodies Targeting Open or Closed SARS-CoV-2 Spike Protein Conformations

Int J Mol Sci. 2022 Feb 14;23(4):2078. doi: 10.3390/ijms23042078.


SARS-CoV-2 infection elicits a polyclonal neutralizing antibody (nAb) response that primarily targets the spike protein, but it is still unclear which nAbs are immunodominant and what distinguishes them from subdominant nAbs. This information would however be crucial to predict the evolutionary trajectory of the virus and design future vaccines. To shed light on this issue, we gathered 83 structures of nAbs in complex with spike protein domains. We analyzed in silico the ability of these nAbs to bind the full spike protein trimer in open and closed conformations, and predicted the change in binding affinity of the most frequently observed spike protein variants in the circulating strains. This led us to define four nAb classes with distinct variant escape fractions. By comparing these fractions with those measured from plasma of infected patients, we showed that the class of nAbs that most contributes to the immune response is able to bind the spike protein in its closed conformation. Although this class of nAbs only partially inhibits the spike protein binding to the host's angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), it has been suggested to lock the closed pre-fusion spike protein conformation and therefore prevent its transition to an open state. Furthermore, comparison of our predictions with mRNA-1273 vaccinated patient plasma measurements suggests that spike proteins contained in vaccines elicit a different nAb class than the one elicited by natural SARS-CoV-2 infection and suggests the design of highly stable closed-form spike proteins as next-generation vaccine immunogens.

Keywords: COVID-19; binding affinity prediction; epitopes; escape fractions; immune response; immunoinformatics; polyclonal plasma; spike protein variants.

MeSH terms

  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme 2 / chemistry
  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme 2 / metabolism
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal / immunology
  • Antibodies, Neutralizing / immunology*
  • Antigen-Antibody Reactions
  • COVID-19 / pathology
  • COVID-19 / virology
  • Epitopes / immunology
  • Humans
  • Mutagenesis
  • Protein Binding
  • Protein Conformation
  • SARS-CoV-2 / isolation & purification
  • SARS-CoV-2 / metabolism*
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / chemistry
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / genetics
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / immunology*
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / metabolism


  • Antibodies, Monoclonal
  • Antibodies, Neutralizing
  • Epitopes
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus
  • spike protein, SARS-CoV-2
  • ACE2 protein, human
  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme 2

Supplementary concepts

  • SARS-CoV-2 variants