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A human coronavirus evolves antigenically to escape antibody immunity

By Rachel Eguia, Katharine H.D. Crawford, Terry Stevens-Ayers, Laurel Kelnhofer-Millevolte, Alexander L. Greninger, Janet A Englund, Michael J. Boeckh, Jesse D. Bloom

Posted 18 Dec 2020
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.12.17.423313

There is intense interest in antibody immunity to coronaviruses. However, it is unknown if coronaviruses evolve to escape such immunity, and if so, how rapidly. Here we address this question by characterizing the historical evolution of human coronavirus 229E. We identify human sera from the 1980s and 1990s that have neutralizing titers against contemporaneous 229E that are comparable to the anti-SARS-CoV-2 titers induced by SARS-CoV-2 infection or vaccination. We test these sera against 229E strains isolated after sera collection, and find that neutralizing titers are lower against these "future" viruses. In some cases, sera that neutralize contemporaneous 229E viral strains with titers >1:100 do not detectably neutralize strains isolated 8-17 years later. The decreased neutralization of "future" viruses is due to antigenic evolution of the viral spike, especially in the receptor-binding domain. If these results extrapolate to other coronaviruses, then it may be advisable to periodically update SARS-CoV-2 vaccines.

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