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Disentangling the relative importance of T cell responses in COVID-19: leading actors or supporting cast?

Stephen Kent et al

Nature Reviews Immunology; volume 22, pages387–397 (2022)

The rapid development of multiple vaccines providing strong protection from severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infection has been a major achievement. There is now compelling evidence for the role of neutralizing antibodies in protective immunity. T cells may play a role in resolution of primary SARS-CoV-2 infection, and there is a widely expressed view that T cell-mediated immunity also plays an important role in vaccine-mediated protection. Here we discuss the role of vaccine-induced T cells in two distinct stages of infection: firstly, in protection from acquisition of symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection following exposure; secondly, if infection does occur, the potential for T cells to reduce the risk of developing severe COVID-19. We describe several lines of evidence that argue against a direct impact of vaccine-induced memory T cells in preventing symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection. However, the contribution of T cell immunity in reducing the severity of infection, particularly in infection with SARS-CoV-2 variants, remains to be determined. A detailed understanding of the role of T cells in COVID-19 is critical for next-generation vaccine design and development. Here we discuss the challenges in determining a causal relationship between vaccine-induced T cell immunity and protection from COVID-19 and propose an approach to gather the necessary evidence to clarify any role for vaccine-induced T cell memory in protection from severe COVID-19.

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