Comprehensive characterization of the antibody responses to SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein finds additional vaccine-induced epitopes beyond those for mild infection.Elife. 2022 01 24; 11E
Control of the COVID-19 pandemic will rely on SARS-CoV-2 vaccine-elicited antibodies to protect against emerging and future variants; an understanding of the unique features of the humoral responses to infection and vaccination, including different vaccine platforms, is needed to achieve this goal.
The epitopes and pathways of escape for Spike-specific antibodies in individuals with diverse infection and vaccination history were profiled using Phage-DMS. Principal component analysis was performed to identify regions of antibody binding along the Spike protein that differentiate the samples from one another. Within these epitope regions, we determined potential sites of escape by comparing antibody binding of peptides containing wild-type residues versus peptides containing a mutant residue.
Individuals with mild infection had antibodies that bound to epitopes in the S2 subunit within the fusion peptide and heptad-repeat regions, whereas vaccinated individuals had antibodies that additionally bound to epitopes in the N- and C-terminal domains of the S1 subunit, a pattern that was also observed in individuals with severe disease due to infection. Epitope binding appeared to change over time after vaccination, but other covariates such as mRNA vaccine dose, mRNA vaccine type, and age did not affect antibody binding to these epitopes. Vaccination induced a relatively uniform escape profile across individuals for some epitopes, whereas there was much more variation in escape pathways in mildly infected individuals. In the case of antibodies targeting the fusion peptide region, which was a common response to both infection and vaccination, the escape profile after infection was not altered by subsequent vaccination.
The finding that SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccination resulted in binding to additional epitopes beyond what was seen after infection suggests that protection could vary depending on the route of exposure to Spike antigen. The relatively conserved escape pathways to vaccine-induced antibodies relative to infection-induced antibodies suggests that if escape variants emerge they may be readily selected for across vaccinated individuals. Given that the majority of people will be first exposed to Spike via vaccination and not infection, this work has implications for predicting the selection of immune escape variants at a population level.
This work was supported by NIH grants AI138709 (PI JMO) and AI146028 (PI FAM). JMO received support as the Endowed Chair for Graduate Education (FHCRC). The research of FAM was supported in part by a Faculty Scholar grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Simons Foundation. Scientific Computing Infrastructure at Fred Hutch was funded by ORIP grant S10OD028685.