Replication-restricted modified vaccinia virus Ankara (MVA) is a licensed smallpox vaccine and numerous clinical studies investigating recombinant MVAs (rMVAs) as vectors for prevention of other infectious diseases have been completed or are in progress. Two rMVA COVID-19 vaccine trials are at an initial stage, though no animal protection studies have been reported. Here, we characterize rMVAs expressing the S protein of CoV-2. Modifications of full length S individually or in combination included two proline substitutions, mutations of the furin recognition site and deletion of the endoplasmic retrieval signal. Another rMVA in which the receptor binding domain (RBD) flanked by the signal peptide and transmembrane domains of S was also constructed. Each modified S protein was displayed on the surface of rMVA-infected human cells and was recognized by anti-RBD antibody and by soluble hACE2 receptor. Intramuscular injection of mice with the rMVAs induced S-binding and pseudovirus-neutralizing antibodies. Boosting occurred following a second homologous rMVA but was higher with adjuvanted purified RBD protein. Weight loss and lethality following intranasal infection of transgenic hACE2 mice with CoV-2 was prevented by one or two immunizations with rMVAs or by passive transfer of serum from vaccinated mice. One or two rMVA vaccinations also prevented recovery of infectious CoV-2 from the lungs. A low amount of virus was detected in the nasal turbinates of only one of eight rMVA-vaccinated mice on day 2 and none later. Detection of subgenomic mRNA in turbinates on day 2 only indicated that replication was abortive in immunized animals.
Vaccines are required to control COVID-19 during the pandemic and possibly afterwards. Recombinant nucleic acids, proteins and virus vectors that stimulate immune responses to the CoV-2 S protein have provided protection in experimental animal or human clinical trials, though questions remain regarding their ability to prevent spread and the duration of immunity. The present study focuses on replication-restricted modified vaccinia virus Ankara (MVA), which has been shown to be a safe, immunogenic and stable smallpox vaccine and a promising vaccine vector for other infectious diseases and cancer. In a transgenic mouse model, one or two injections of recombinant MVAs that express modified forms of S inhibited CoV-2 replication in the upper and lower respiratory tracts and prevented severe disease.