The first-generation COVID-19 vaccines have been effective in mitigating severe illness and hospitalization, but recurring waves of infections are associated with the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants that display progressive abilities to evade antibodies, leading to diminished vaccine effectiveness. The lack of clarity on the extent to which vaccine-elicited mucosal or systemic memory T cells protect against such antibody-evasive SARS-CoV-2 variants remains a critical knowledge gap in our quest for broadly protective vaccines. Using adjuvanted spike protein–based vaccines that elicit potent T cell responses, we assessed whether systemic or lung-resident CD4 and CD8 T cells protected against SARS-CoV-2 variants in the presence or absence of virus-neutralizing antibodies. We found that 1) mucosal or parenteral immunization led to effective viral control and protected against lung pathology with or without neutralizing antibodies, 2) protection afforded by mucosal memory CD8 T cells was largely redundant in the presence of antibodies that effectively neutralized the challenge virus, and 3) “unhelped” mucosal memory CD8 T cells provided no protection against the homologous SARS-CoV-2 without CD4 T cells and neutralizing antibodies. Significantly, however, in the absence of detectable virus-neutralizing antibodies, systemic or lung-resident memory CD4 and “helped” CD8 T cells provided effective protection against the relatively antibody-resistant B1.351 (β) variant, without lung immunopathology. Thus, induction of systemic and mucosal memory T cells directed against conserved epitopes might be an effective strategy to protect against SARS-CoV-2 variants that evade neutralizing antibodies. Mechanistic insights from this work have significant implications in the development of T cell–targeted immunomodulation or broadly protective SARS-CoV-2 vaccines.
Keywords: SARS-CoV-2; T cells; antibodies; immunity; vaccine.