Cross-reactive immunity between SARS-CoV-2 and other related coronaviruses has been well-documented, and it may play a role in preventing severe COVID-19. Epidemiological studies early in the pandemic showed a geographical association between high influenza vaccination rates and lower incidence of SARS-CoV-2 infection. We, therefore, analyzed whether exposure to influenza A virus (IAV) antigens could influence the T cell repertoire in response to SARS-CoV-2, indicating a heterologous immune response between these 2 unrelated viruses. Using artificial antigen-presenting cells (aAPCs) combined with real-time reverse-transcription PCR (RT-qPCR), we developed a sensitive assay to quickly screen for antigen-specific T cell responses and detected a significant correlation between responses to SARS-CoV-2 epitopes and IAV dominant epitope (M158-66). Further analysis showed that some COVID-19 convalescent donors exhibited both T cell receptor (TCR) specificity and functional cytokine responses to multiple SARS-CoV-2 epitopes and M158-66. Utilizing an aAPC-based stimulation/expansion assay, we detected cross-reactive T cells with specificity to SARS-CoV-2 and IAV. In addition, TCR sequencing of the cross-reactive and IAV-specific T cells revealed similarities between the TCR repertoires of the two populations. These results indicate that heterologous immunity shaped by our exposure to other unrelated endemic viruses may affect our immune response to novel viruses such as SARS-CoV-2.
Keywords: Adaptive immunity; COVID-19; Immunology; T cells.