Immune system T cells can fight the omicron COVID-19 variant, study suggests

The immune system’s T cell responses remain largely robust against the omicron variant of coronavirus, according to researchers.

In a study published in the journal Viruses, a team from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and the University of Melbourne analyzed more than 1,500 fragments of SARS-CoV’2 viral proteins – or epitopes – that have been recognized by T cells in cured COVID-19 patients or after vaccination.

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“Overall, given that most of the experimental T cell epitopes known to be targeted in vaccinated and / or previously infected individuals [collectively, accounting for (about) 60% of the global population as of 25 December 2021] is unaffected by omicron mutations, our preliminary analysis suggests that the efficacy of pre-existing T cell immunity will remain intact, “the group said.

However, T cell responses alone do not block infection and therefore do not prevent transmission. Although the number of infections may increase significantly due to the ability of omicron to avoid antibodies, robust T cell immunity gives hope that similar to others [variants of concern], the level of protection against serious illness will remain high. “

A healthcare professional administers a COVID-19 nose graft test at a mobile test site in the Times Square neighborhood of New York on December 5, 2021.

A healthcare professional administers a COVID-19 nose graft test at a mobile test site in the Times Square neighborhood of New York on December 5, 2021.
(Jeenah Moon / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

However, the authors noted that although data suggest a reduced risk of hospitalization and death due to the variant of concern, the degree to which pre-existing T cell immunity contributes to these outcomes “must still be clearly established.”

“Despite being a preliminary study, we believe this is positive news. Although omicron, or another variant for that matter, could potentially escape antibodies, a robust T-cell response can still be expected to offer protection. and help prevent significant disease, “said Professor Matthew McKay of the University of Melbourne, who co-led the research, in a press release.

Health authorities have said omicron appears to be less likely to cause serious illness than previous variants, based on preliminary research.

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Researchers are working to learn more about the highly transmissible strain, including its ability to avoid the immune response and its impact on the effectiveness of the vaccine.

T cells, which are a type of white blood cell that develop from stem cells in the bone marrow, help protect the body from infection.

Omicron’s nail protein allows the virus to bind and penetrate cells in humans.

Looking at epitopes from the spike protein, which is targeted by T cells in vaccinated or previously infected individuals, the study found that only 20% showed mutations associated with the highly mutated omicron variant.

“Among these T cell epitopes that have omicron mutations, our further analysis revealed that more than half are still expected to be visible to T cells. This further reduces the chance that omicron can escape T cell defenses,” said Ahmed Abdul Quadeer, study assistant and research assistant professor at HKUST’s Department of Electronics and Computer Engineering.

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The researchers also found that more than 97% of T cell epitopes without spikes do not include omicron-associated mutations.

“These results generally suggest that broad escape from T cells is highly unlikely,” McKay noted. “Based on our data, we expect that T-cell responses elicited by vaccines and boosters, for example, will continue to protect against omicron, as observed for other variants.”

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