Immunogenic epitope panel for accurate detection of non-cross-reactive T cell response to SARS-CoV-2
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic calls for more effective diagnostic tools. T cell response assessment serves as an independent indicator of prior COVID-19 exposure while also contributing to a more comprehensive characterization of SARS-CoV-2 immunity. In this study, we systematically assessed the immunogenicity of 118 epitopes with immune cells collected from multiple cohorts of vaccinated, convalescent, healthy unexposed, and SARS-CoV-2–exposed donors. We identified 75 immunogenic epitopes, 24 of which were immunodominant. We further confirmed HLA restriction for 49 epitopes and described association with more than 1 HLA allele for 14 of these. Exclusion of 2 cross-reactive epitopes that generated a response in prepandemic samples left us with a 73-epitope set that offered excellent diagnostic specificity without losing sensitivity compared with full-length antigens, and this evoked a robust cross-reactive response. We subsequently incorporated this set of epitopes into an in vitro diagnostic Corona-T-test, which achieved a diagnostic accuracy of 95% in a clinical trial. In a cohort of asymptomatic seronegative individuals with a history of prolonged SARS-CoV-2 exposure, we observed a complete absence of T cell response to our epitope panel. In combination with strong reactivity to full-length antigens, this suggests that a cross-reactive response might protect these individuals.