Superantigenic character of an insert unique to SARS-CoV-2 spike supported by skewed TCR repertoire in patients with hyperinflammation

Authors: Mary Hongying Cheng, She Zhang, Rebecca A. Porritt, Magali Noval Rivas, Lisa Paschold, Edith Willscher, Mascha Binder, Moshe Arditi, and Ivet Bahar


Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C) associated with COVID-19 is a newly recognized condition in children with recent severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infection. These children and adult patients with severe hyperinflammation present with a constellation of symptoms that strongly resemble toxic shock syndrome, an escalation of the cytotoxic adaptive immune response triggered upon the binding of pathogenic superantigens to T cell receptors (TCRs) and/or major histocompatibility complex class II (MHCII) molecules. Here, using structure-based computational models, we demonstrate that the SARS-CoV-2 spike (S) glycoprotein exhibits a high-affinity motif for binding TCRs, and may form a ternary complex with MHCII. The binding epitope on S harbors a sequence motif unique to SARS-CoV-2 (not present in other SARS-related coronaviruses), which is highly similar in both sequence and structure to the bacterial superantigen staphylococcal enterotoxin B. This interaction between the virus and human T cells could be strengthened by a rare mutation (D839Y/N/E) from a European strain of SARS-CoV-2. Furthermore, the interfacial region includes selected residues from an intercellular adhesion molecule (ICAM)-like motif shared between the SARS viruses from the 2003 and 2019 pandemics. A neurotoxin-like sequence motif on the receptor-binding domain also exhibits a high tendency to bind TCRs. Analysis of the TCR repertoire in adult COVID-19 patients demonstrates that those with severe hyperinflammatory disease exhibit TCR skewing consistent with superantigen activation. These data suggest that SARS-CoV-2 S may act as a superantigen to trigger the development of MIS-C as well as cytokine storm in adult COVID-19 patients, with important implications for the development of therapeutic approaches.

Source: PNAS, first published September 28, 2020