Immunopeptidome profiling of human coronavirus OC43-infected cells identifies CD4 T cell epitopes specific to seasonal coronaviruses or cross-reactive with SARS-CoV-2

bioRxiv. 2022 Dec 1;2022.12.01.518643. doi: 10.1101/2022.12.01.518643. Preprint


Seasonal "common-cold" human coronaviruses are widely spread throughout the world and are mainly associated with mild upper respiratory tract infections. The emergence of highly pathogenic coronaviruses MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV, and most recently SARS-CoV-2 has prompted increased attention to coronavirus biology and immunopathology, but identification and characterization of the T cell response to seasonal human coronaviruses remain largely uncharacterized. Here we report the repertoire of viral peptides that are naturally processed and presented upon infection of a model cell line with seasonal human coronavirus OC43. We identified MHC-I and MHC-II bound peptides derived from the viral spike, nucleocapsid, hemagglutinin-esterase, 3C-like proteinase, and envelope proteins. Only three MHC-I bound OC43-derived peptides were observed, possibly due to the potent MHC-I downregulation induced by OC43 infection. By contrast, 80 MHC-II bound peptides corresponding to 14 distinct OC43-derived epitopes were identified, including many at very high abundance within the overall MHC-II peptidome. These peptides elicited low-abundance recall T cell responses in most donors tested. In vitro assays confirmed that the peptides were recognized by CD4+ T cells and identified the presenting HLA alleles. T cell responses cross-reactive between OC43, SARS-CoV-2, and the other seasonal coronaviruses were confirmed in samples of peripheral blood and peptide-expanded T cell lines. Among the validated epitopes, S 903-917 presented by DPA1*01:03/DPB1*04:01 and S 1085-1099 presented by DRB1*15:01 shared substantial homology to other human coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2, and were targeted by cross-reactive CD4 T cells. N 54-68 and HE 128-142 presented by DRB1*15:01 and HE 259-273 presented by DPA1*01:03/DPB1*04:01 are immunodominant epitopes with low coronavirus homology that are not cross-reactive with SARS-CoV-2. Overall, the set of naturally processed and presented OC43 epitopes comprise both OC43-specific and human coronavirus cross-reactive epitopes, which can be used to follow T cell cross-reactivity after infection or vaccination and could aid in the selection of epitopes for inclusion in pan-coronavirus vaccines.

Author summary: There is much current interest in cellular immune responses to seasonal common-cold coronaviruses because of their possible role in mediating protection against SARS-CoV-2 infection or pathology. However, identification of relevant T cell epitopes and systematic studies of the T cell responses responding to these viruses are scarce. We conducted a study to identify naturally processed and presented MHC-I and MHC-II epitopes from human cells infected with the seasonal coronavirus HCoV-OC43, and to characterize the T cell responses associated with these epitopes. We found epitopes specific to the seasonal coronaviruses, as well as epitopes cross-reactive between HCoV-OC43 and SARS-CoV-2. These epitopes should be useful in following immune responses to seasonal coronaviruses and identifying their roles in COVID-19 vaccination, infection, and pathogenesis.

Publication types

  • Preprint