Vaccine breakthrough hypoxemic COVID-19 pneumonia in patients with auto-Abs neutralizing type I IFNs

Sci Immunol. 2022 Jun 14:eabp8966. doi: 10.1126/sciimmunol.abp8966. Online ahead of print.


Life-threatening 'breakthrough' cases of critical COVID-19 are attributed to poor or waning antibody response to the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine in individuals already at risk. Pre-existing autoantibodies (auto-Abs) neutralizing type I IFNs underlie at least 15% of critical COVID-19 pneumonia cases in unvaccinated individuals; however, their contribution to hypoxemic breakthrough cases in vaccinated people remains unknown. Here, we studied a cohort of 48 individuals (age 20-86 years) who received 2 doses of an mRNA vaccine and developed a breakthrough infection with hypoxemic COVID-19 pneumonia 2 weeks to 4 months later. Antibody levels to the vaccine, neutralization of the virus, and auto-Abs to type I IFNs were measured in the plasma. Forty-two individuals had no known deficiency of B cell immunity and a normal antibody response to the vaccine. Among them, ten (24%) had auto-Abs neutralizing type I IFNs (aged 43-86 years). Eight of these ten patients had auto-Abs neutralizing both IFN-α2 and IFN-ω, while two neutralized IFN-ω only. No patient neutralized IFN-β. Seven neutralized 10 ng/mL of type I IFNs, and three 100 pg/mL only. Seven patients neutralized SARS-CoV-2 D614G and the Delta variant (B.1.617.2) efficiently, while one patient neutralized Delta slightly less efficiently. Two of the three patients neutralizing only 100 pg/mL of type I IFNs neutralized both D61G and Delta less efficiently. Despite two mRNA vaccine inoculations and the presence of circulating antibodies capable of neutralizing SARS-CoV-2, auto-Abs neutralizing type I IFNs may underlie a significant proportion of hypoxemic COVID-19 pneumonia cases, highlighting the importance of this particularly vulnerable population.