Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines against severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) are highly effective at inducing protective immunity. However, weak antibody responses are seen in some individuals, and cellular correlates of immunity remain poorly defined, especially for B cells. Here we used unbiased approaches to longitudinally dissect primary antibody, plasmablast, and memory B cell (MBC) responses to the two-dose mRNA-1273 vaccine in SARS-CoV-2-naive adults. Coordinated immunoglobulin A (IgA) and IgG antibody responses were preceded by bursts of spike-specific plasmablasts after both doses but earlier and more intensely after dose 2. While antibody and B cell cellular responses were generally robust, they also varied within the cohort and decreased over time after a dose-2 peak. Both antigen-nonspecific postvaccination plasmablast frequency after dose 1 and their spike-specific counterparts early after dose 2 correlated with subsequent antibody levels. This correlation between early plasmablasts and antibodies remained for titers measured at 6 months after vaccination. Several distinct antigen-specific MBC populations emerged postvaccination with varying kinetics, including two MBC populations that correlated with 2- and 6-month antibody titers. Both were IgG-expressing MBCs: one less mature, appearing as a correlate after the first dose, while the other MBC correlate showed a more mature and resting phenotype, emerging as a correlate later after dose 2. This latter MBC was also a major contributor to the sustained spike-specific MBC response observed at month 6. Thus, these plasmablasts and MBCs that emerged after both the first and second doses with distinct kinetics are potential determinants of the magnitude and durability of antibodies in response to mRNA-based vaccination.
Keywords: B cells; SARS-CoV-2; adaptive immunity; antibodies; mRNA vaccines.