A bioinformatic analysis of T-cell epitope diversity in SARS-CoV-2 variants: association with COVID-19 clinical severity in the United States population

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Frontiers in Immunology


Long-term immunity against severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) requires the identification of T-cell epitopes affecting host immunogenicity. In this computational study, we explored the CD8+ epitope diversity estimated in 27 of the most common HLA-A and HLA-B alleles, representing most of the United States population. Analysis of 16 SARS-CoV-2 variants [B.1, Alpha (B.1.1.7), five Delta (AY.100, AY.25, AY.3, AY.3.1, AY.44), and nine Omicron (BA.1, BA.1.1, BA.2, BA.4, BA.5, BQ.1, BQ.1.1, XBB.1, XBB.1.5)] in analyzed MHC class I alleles revealed that SARS-CoV-2 CD8+ epitope conservation was estimated at 87.6%–96.5% in spike (S), 92.5%–99.6% in membrane (M), and 94.6%–99% in nucleocapsid (N). As the virus mutated, an increasing proportion of S epitopes experienced reduced predicted binding affinity: 70% of Omicron BQ.1-XBB.1.5 S epitopes experienced decreased predicted binding, as compared with ~3% and ~15% in the earlier strains Delta AY.100–AY.44 and Omicron BA.1–BA.5, respectively. Additionally, we identified several novel candidate HLA alleles that may be more susceptible to severe disease, notably HLA-A*32:01, HLA-A*26:01, and HLA-B*53:01, and relatively protected from disease, such as HLA-A*31:01, HLA-B*40:01, HLA-B*44:03, and HLA-B*57:01. Our findings support the hypothesis that viral genetic variation affecting CD8 T-cell epitope immunogenicity contributes to determining the clinical severity of acute COVID-19. Achieving long-term COVID-19 immunity will require an understanding of the relationship between T cells, SARS-CoV-2 variants, and host MHC class I genetics. This project is one of the first to explore the SARS-CoV-2 CD8+ epitope diversity that putatively impacts much of the United States population.

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