Researchers have systematically mapped the immune response to COVID-19 identifying how antibodies develop in response to SARS-CoV2


Melbourne researchers have systematically mapped the immune response to COVID-19 identifying how antibodies develop in response to SARS-CoV2 and new insights into why some people develop severe disease.

The team, led by University of Melbourne Professor Katherine Kedzierska, a laboratory head at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute), identified that multiple arms of the immune system are involved in the response.

University of Melbourne Dr. Oanh Nguyen, Research Fellow at the Doherty Institute, said this study, published today in Cell Reports medicine, investigated the blood samples of 85 patients who experienced mild to moderate and severe COVID-19 disease, some of which were hospitalized.

We followed some of the patients up to 100 days post onset of COVID-19 symptoms, allowing us to provide a comprehensive map of the immune response in hospitalized patients,” Dr. Nguyen said.

“We explored all aspects of the immune system, including the innate, adaptive, and humoral immune responses, as well as inflammation. This map provides important insights into predictors of severe disease and new treatments for COVID-19.”

The research team is the first to report evidence that in the acute phase of COVID-19 activation of a type of immune cell, T follicular helper cells, can predict subsequent antibody levels, including neutralizing activity of the antibody, a critical feature important for virus clearance and protection from infection.

“In addition, we also found the activation of T follicular helper cells in the acute phase of COVID-19 correlates with antibody levels once recovered and symptom free,” Professor Kedzierska said.

“Understanding the immune predictors of what leads to development of high levels of antibodies is highly relevant to developing new vaccines and treatments for COVID-19.

“We have described the hallmarks of the ideal immune response that could potentially be elicited with immunotherapy or an effective vaccine, mimicking the natural immune response to the infection.”

In December 2019, a novel coronavirus named SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2) was identified as the cause of an acute respiratory disease known as coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

This enveloped positive-sense RNA virus is a member of the betacoronavirus and spread worldwide with an unprecedented speed compared with the dissemination of SARS-CoV in 2003 and Middle East respiratory syndrome–related coronavirus virus (MERS-CoV) in 2012 (1).

Recent reports indicate that SARS-CoV-2 elicits robust humoral immune responses, including production of virus-specific antibodies of the immunoglobulin M (IgM), IgG, and IgA isotypes.

Patients have been shown to achieve seroconversion and produce detectable antibodies within 20 days of symptom onset, although the kinetics of IgM and IgG production are variable (2–4).

Secretory IgA plays a crucial role in protecting mucosal surfaces against pathogens by neutralizing respiratory viruses or impeding their attachment to epithelial cells (5–8).

Influenza-specific IgA has been shown to be more effective in preventing infections in mice and humans compared with influenza-specific IgG, and elevated IgA serum levels have been correlated with influenza vaccine efficacy (9–11). IgA may also play an important role in SARS-CoV infection.

In mice, intranasal vaccination with SARS-CoV proteins induces localized and systemic virus-specific IgA responses and provides better protection against SARS-CoV challenge compared with intramuscular delivery, suggesting that mucosal-induced IgA is protective (12).

A recently reported intervention based on an intranasal immunization with a MERS-derived vaccine confirmed a beneficial role of IgA (13). However, the nature of the virus-specific IgA response against SARS-CoV-2 infection in humans remains poorly understood.

We tracked antibody-secreting cells, characterized here as plasmablasts, in the blood of SARS-CoV-2–infected patients. We measured specific antibody titers longitudinally in serum and compared the neutralizing capacities of purified serum monomeric IgA and IgG. Lastly, we studied the neutralization potential of mucosal antibodies present in lower respiratory tract pulmonary secretions and saliva. Our results show that human IgA antibodies are often detectable before the appearance of SARS-CoV-2–specific IgG and suggest a role for IgA antibodies in early virus neutralization.


Our data highlight the potency of IgA in the early stage of COVID-19 disease at various body sites through the analysis of blood, BAL, and saliva.

We show that SARS-CoV-2 neutralization is more closely correlated with IgA than IgM or IgG in the first weeks after symptom onset. Our own results do not directly imply that monomeric IgA would be inherently more neutralizing than monomeric IgG.

However, published works already suggest that SARS-CoV-2–specific IgA and IgG responses are qualitatively different. In a recent study based on the same variable SARS-CoV-2–specific antibody domain, but expressed as IgA or IgG, Ejemel et al. (26) showed that the IgA monomer had significantly enhanced neutralization potency over its IgG equivalent.

It is proposed that the increased flexibility and longer hinge of IgA1, relative to IgG (27), would be more favorable to interactions between the IgA monomer and the SARS-CoV-2 spike trimer. Previous studies in influenza- and HIV-specific antibodies have reported similar observations (28).

Another possibility is that IgA may be more broadly cross-reactive against various human coronaviruses, as suggested from the extensive analysis of memory B cells of a survivor of the 2003 SARS-CoV outbreak (29). It is also possible that the maturation of the systemic IgG response may be slightly delayed compared with the mucosal IgA response.

Our results show that serum IgA, particularly anti-RBD IgA, is detected earlier compared with IgG, and that the marked plasmablast expansion that following SARS-CoV-2 infection is dominated by IgA-secreting cells (Fig. 1D).

The time to positivity against RBD is markedly shorter for IgA than for IgG (fig. S4B), and serum neutralization potential is associated with anti-RBD IgA isotype antibodies (Fig. 3F). We also observed a rapid decline in SARS-CoV-2–specific IgA serum levels, thereby bringing into question the long-term efficacy of this marked first wave response.

In convalescent individuals, plasma SARS-CoV-2–specific IgA monomers were found to be twofold less potent in neutralization assays than IgG equivalents (30). It is also possible that sustained SARS-CoV-2–specific secretory IgA levels are maintained in mucosal secretions, because we detected higher SARS-CoV-2–specific IgA titers in saliva relative to paired serum samples obtained after day 49 post-symptom onset (Fig. 3I).

This observation is consistent with the finding that the dimeric form of IgA, which is found in the mucosa, is more potent against authentic SARS-CoV-2 than both IgA and IgG monomers (30). However, neutralizing activity was not detectable at later time points (days 189 to 230) in the saliva of 14 individuals who had exhibited mild, ambulatory, COVID-19 (fig. S5J).

Mucosal SARS-CoV-2–neutralizing antibodies may arise from multiple origins. Monomeric plasma IgA antibodies do not bind to FcRn but can reach the airways through an alternative receptor-independent process called transudation, which is more likely to occur in damaged lung tissue (31, 32).

A clonal relationship has been shown between serum and mucosal antigen-specific IgA (33). We show that monomeric IgA is present in BAL; thus, it is possible that plasma IgA antibodies could exert functions in the lower intestinal track as well. Whereas IgA and IgG may reach the airways and lungs by transudation from plasma, no significant correlation was observed between BAL and serum-specific antibody titers (fig. S5H), suggesting that a part of the SARS-CoV-2 antibody response is generated locally.

Recirculating IgA-secreting plasmablasts with a mucosal homing profile (16, 34–36) were detected in high numbers in the patients that we studied and are likely to seed the lung/airway interface. IgA-secreting cells can efficiently home to and reside within the mucosa (37), and IgA subclass switch recombination can take place in these tissues (38) in a T cell–independent manner (39).

The lack of correlation between plasmablast and TFH cell expansion observed in this study suggests that germinal center–independent induction of IgA is occurring (40). Several recently described SARS-CoV-2–neutralizing IgG (41, 42) did not carry somatic mutations typically associated with affinity maturation and T cell help.

A molecular and functional characterization of IgA monoclonal antibodies secreted by plasmablasts found in peripheral blood during the first week of symptom onset may shed light on their mutational status. The observations made in our study could provide insight into the observation that the vast majority of children develop mild symptoms or are asymptomatic upon SARS-CoV-2 infection (43, 44), by suggesting that cross-reactive IgA, recently identified in human gut mucosa against other targets than SARS-CoV-2 (34, 45), may be more prevalent in children and/or could be rapidly mobilized in response to infection with SARS-CoV-2.

We confirmed that serum, BAL, and saliva antibodies have SARS-CoV-2 neutralization potential using a pseudoneutralization assay and validated with a viral neutralization assay. It remains to be confirmed whether this response is long-lasting in patients who have experienced more severe disease compared with the ambulatory patients that were studied here. Saliva analysis, potentially based on newly developed digital enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA)–based assays, such as the single molecule array (Simoa) (46), may represent a convenient way to address this issue in future studies.

In several early serum samples with efficient virus-neutralizing capacity, only anti-RBD IgM was detected at measurable amounts, because neither IgA nor IgG SARS-CoV-2 spike RBD-specific antibodies were above the threshold of detection [patient 2 (P2) day 14 and P3 day 6 post-symptoms; fig. S5E].

This observation suggests that IgM may provide some level of protection as well, but this sequence of detection of IgM first, followed by IgG and IgA, is unusual and not likely to be prevalent. A more typical profile is exemplified by P9, with anti-RBD IgA levels peaking before the appearance of anti-RBD IgG and barely detectable IgM at any of the measured time-points (fig. S5E). Because only virus-specific IgM is detected at early time points in rare cases, it remains to be determined whether all isotypes should be measured during serological diagnosis.

It was recently proposed that high levels of IgA might play a detrimental role in COVID-19 patients (47). We compared early IgA levels in patients with subsequent favorable or severe outcomes. We show that early IgA levels were not significantly higher in patients that later deteriorated (table S4). Our results therefore do not sufficiently support the hypothesis that an early IgA response might have a potential negative influence on disease progression.

Our study has several limitations. Given the time frame covered in this study, further longitudinal studies are needed to assess whether local SARS-CoV-2–specific IgA production persists for a longer time in patients recovered from severe COVID-19 than in the pauci-symptomatic individuals that we have been tested at late time points. In addition, it remains to be determined whether secretory antibodies may contribute to a longer-term barrier effect in the nose and lung compared with saliva.

In conclusion, our findings suggest that IgA-mediated mucosal immunity may be a critical defense mechanism against SARS-CoV-2 at the individual level that may reduce infectivity of human secretions and consequently viral transmission as well. This finding may also inform the development of vaccines that induce specific respiratory IgA responses to SARS-CoV-2.

reference link:

More information: Marios Koutsakos et al. Integrated immune dynamics define correlates of COVID-19 severity and antibody responses, Cell Reports Medicine (2021). DOI: 10.1016/j.xcrm.2021.100208


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