Can T Cells Abort SARS-CoV-2 and Other Viral Infections?


International Journal of Molecular Sciences

Contributing to research themes:

Despite the highly infectious nature of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it is clear that some individuals with potential exposure, or even experimental challenge with the virus, resist developing a detectable infection. While a proportion of seronegative individuals will have completely avoided exposure to the virus, a growing body of evidence suggests a subset of individuals are exposed, but mediate rapid viral clearance before the infection is detected by PCR or seroconversion. This type of “abortive” infection likely represents a dead-end in transmission and precludes the possibility for development of disease. It is, therefore, a desirable outcome on exposure and a setting in which highly effective immunity can be studied. Here, we describe how early sampling of a new pandemic virus using sensitive immunoassays and a novel transcriptomic signature can identify abortive infections. Despite the challenges in identifying abortive infections, we highlight diverse lines of evidence supporting their occurrence. In particular, expansion of virus-specific T cells in seronegative individuals suggests abortive infections occur not only after exposure to SARS-CoV-2, but for other coronaviridae, and diverse viral infections of global health importance (e.g., HIV, HCV, HBV). We discuss unanswered questions related to abortive infection, such as: ‘Are we just missing antibodies? Are T cells an epiphenomenon? What is the influence of the dose of viral inoculum?’ Finally, we argue for a refinement of the current paradigm that T cells are only involved in clearing established infection; instead, we emphasise the importance of considering their role in terminating early viral replication by studying abortive infections.

Author list:


Division of Infection and Immunity, Institute of Immunity and Transplantation, University College London, Pears Building, London WC1E 6BT, UK


Leo Swadling, Mala K. Maini