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Long-term immunity of COVID-19 convalescent patients provides an indicator regarding the long-term persistence of T cell immunity

A KAIST immunology research team found that most convalescent patients of COVID-19 develop and maintain T cell memory for over 10 months regardless of the severity of their symptoms. In addition, memory T cells proliferate rapidly after encountering their cognate antigen and accomplish their multifunctional roles.

This study provides new insights for effective vaccine strategies against COVID-19, considering the self-renewal capacity and multipotency of memory T cells.

COVID-19 is a disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) infection. When patients recover from COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2-specific adaptive immune memory is developed. The adaptive immune system consists of two principal components: B cells that produce antibodies and T cells that eliminate infected cells.

The current results suggest that the protective immune function of memory T cells will be implemented upon re-exposure to SARS-CoV-2.

Recently, the role of memory T cells against SARS-CoV-2 has been gaining attention as neutralizing antibodies wane after recovery. Although memory T cells cannot prevent the infection itself, they play a central role in preventing the severe progression of COVID-19.

However, the longevity and functional maintenance of SARS-CoV-2-specific memory T cells remain unknown.

Professor Eui-Cheol Shin and his collaborators investigated the characteristics and functions of stem cell-like memory T cells, which are expected to play a crucial role in long-term immunity. Researchers analyzed the generation of stem cell-like memory T cells and multi-cytokine producing polyfunctional memory T cells, using cutting-edge immunological techniques.

This research is significant in that revealing the long-term immunity of COVID-19 convalescent patients provides an indicator regarding the long-term persistence of T cell immunity, one of the main goals of future vaccine development, as well as evaluating the long-term efficacy of currently available COVID-19 vaccines.

The research team is presently conducting a follow-up study to identify the memory T cell formation and functional characteristics of those who received COVID-19 vaccines, and to understand the immunological effect of COVID-19 vaccines by comparing the characteristics of memory T cells from vaccinated individuals with those of COVID-19 convalescent patients.

Ph.D. candidate Jae Hyung Jung and Dr. Min-Seok Rha, a clinical fellow at Yonsei Severance Hospital, who led the study together explained, “Our analysis will enhance the understanding of COVID-19 immunity and establish an index for COVID-19 vaccine-induced memory T cells.”

“This study is the world’s longest longitudinal study on differentiation and functions of memory T cells among COVID-19 convalescent patients. The research on the temporal dynamics of immune responses has laid the groundwork for building a strategy for next-generation vaccine development,” Professor Shin added. This work was supported by the Samsung Science and Technology Foundation and KAIST, and was published in Nature Communications on June 30.


The study involved 254 samples from 188 COVID-19 cases, including 43 samples at 6 to 8 months after infection. Fifty-one subjects in the study provided longitudinal blood samples, allowing for both cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses of SARS-CoV-2–specific immune memory. Antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 spike and receptor binding domain (RBD) declined moderately over 8 months, comparable to several other reports. Memory B cells against SARS-CoV-2 spike actually increased between 1 month and 8 months after infection. Memory CD8+ T cells and memory CD4+ T cells declined with an initial half-life of 3 to 5 months. This is the largest antigen-specific study to date of the four major types of immune memory for any viral infection.

Among the antibody responses, spike immunoglobulin G (IgG), RBD IgG, and neutralizing antibody titers exhibited similar kinetics. Spike IgA was still present in the large majority of subjects at 6 to 8 months after infection. Among the memory B cell responses, IgG was the dominant isotype, with a minor population of IgA memory B cells. IgM memory B cells appeared to be short-lived. CD8+ T cell and CD4+ T cell memory was measured for all SARS-CoV-2 proteins.

Although ~70% of individuals possessed detectable CD8+ T cell memory at 1 month after infection, that proportion declined to ~50% by 6 to 8 months after infection. For CD4+ T cell memory, 93% of subjects had detectable SARS-CoV-2 memory at 1 month after infection, and the proportion of subjects positive for CD4+ T cells (92%) remained high at 6 to 8 months after infection. SARS-CoV-2 spike-specific memory CD4+ T cells with the specialized capacity to help B cells [T follicular helper (TFH) cells] were also maintained.

The different types of immune memory each had distinct kinetics, resulting in complex interrelationships between the abundance of T cell, B cell, and antibody immune memory over time. Additionally, substantially heterogeneity in memory to SARS-CoV-2 was observed.

CONCLUSION
Substantial immune memory is generated after COVID-19, involving all four major types of immune memory. About 95% of subjects retained immune memory at ~6 months after infection. Circulating antibody titers were not predictive of T cell memory. Thus, simple serological tests for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies do not reflect the richness and durability of immune memory to SARS-CoV-2. This work expands our understanding of immune memory in humans. These results have implications for protective immunity against SARS-CoV-2 and recurrent COVID-19.

mmunological memory consists of antibodies, memory B cells, memory CD8+ T cells, and memory CD4+ T cells.This study examined all of the types of virus-specific immune memory against SARS-CoV-2 in COVID-19 subjects. Robust immune memory was observed in most individuals.

reference link : https://science.sciencemag.org/content/371/6529/eabf4063


More information: Jae Hyung Jung et al, SARS-CoV-2-specific T cell memory is sustained in COVID-19 convalescent patients for 10 months with successful development of stem cell-like memory T cells, Nature Communications (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-24377-1

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