SARS-CoV-2 spike–based vaccines are used to control the COVID-19 pandemic. However, emerging variants have become resistant to antibody neutralization and further mutations may lead to full resistance. We tested whether T cells alone could provide protection without antibodies. We designed a T cell–based vaccine in which SARS-CoV-2 spike sequences were rearranged and attached to ubiquitin. Immunization of mice with the vaccine induced no specific antibodies, but strong specific T cell responses. We challenged mice with SARS-CoV-2 wild-type strain or an Omicron variant after the immunization and monitored survival or viral titers in the lungs. The mice were significantly protected against death and weight loss caused by the SARS-CoV-2 wild-type strain, and the viral titers in the lungs of mice challenged with the SARS-CoV-2 wild-type strain or the Omicron variant were significantly reduced. Importantly, depletion of CD4+ or CD8+ T cells led to significant loss of the protection. Our analyses of spike protein sequences of the variants indicated that fewer than one-third presented by dominant HLA alleles were mutated and that most of the mutated epitopes were in the subunit 1 region. As the subunit 2 region is conservative, the vaccines targeting spike protein are expected to protect against future variants due to the T cell responses.


Juan Shi, Jian Zheng, Xiujuan Zhang, Wanbo Tai, Ryan Compas, Jack Deno, Natalie Jachym, Abhishek K. Verma, Gang Wang, Xiaoqing Guan, Abby E. Odle, Yushun Wan, Fang Li, Stanley Perlman, Liang Qiao, Lanying Du


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