Comparison of two T cell assays to evaluate T cell responses to SARS-CoV-2 following vaccination in naïve and convalescent healthcare workers



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This research has not been peer-reviewed, and has been posted on pre-print repository medRxiv. This is a preliminary report that should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behaviour, or be reported in news media as established information.

Background: T cell responses to SARS-CoV-2 following infection and vaccination are less characterised than antibody responses, due to a more complex experimental pathway.

Methods: We measured T cell responses in 108 healthcare workers (HCWs) in an observational cohort study, using the commercialised Oxford Immunotec T-SPOT Discovery SARS-CoV-2 assay (OI T-SPOT) and the PITCH ELISpot protocol established for academic research settings.

Results: Both assays detected T cell responses to SARS-CoV-2 spike, membrane and nucleocapsid proteins. Responses were significantly lower when reported by OI T-SPOT than by PITCH ELISpot. Four weeks after two doses of either Pfizer/BioNTech BNT162b or ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 AZD1222 vaccine, the responder rate was 63% for OI T-SPOT Panels1+2 (peptides representing SARS-CoV-2 spike protein excluding regions present in seasonal coronaviruses), 69% for OI T-SPOT Panel 14 (peptides representing the entire SARS-CoV-2 spike), and 94% for the PITCH ELISpot assay. The two OI T-SPOT panels correlated strongly with each other showing that either readout quantifies spike-specific T cell responses, although the correlation between the OI T-SPOT panels and the PITCH ELISpot was moderate.

Conclusion: The standardisation, relative scalability and longer interval between blood acquisition and processing are advantages of the commercial OI T-SPOT assay. However, the OI T-SPOT assay measures T cell responses at a significantly lower magnitude compared to the PITCH ELISpot assay, detecting T cell responses in a lower proportion of vaccinees. This has implications for the reporting of low-level T cell responses that may be observed in patient populations and for the assessment of T cell durability after vaccination.

Author list:

Eloise Phillips, Sandra Adele, Tom Malone, Alexandra Deeks, Lizzie Stafford, Susan L. Dobson,  Ali Amini, Donal Skelly,  David Eyre, Katie Jeffery, Christopher P. Conlon, Christina Dold, Ashley Otter, Silvia D’Arcangelo, Lance Turtle, PITCH Consortium, Paul Klenerman, Eleanor Barnes, Susanna J. Dunachie