Many unknowns exist about human immune responses to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. SARS-CoV-2 reactive CD4+ T cells have been reported in unexposed individuals, suggesting pre-existing cross-reactive T cell memory in 20-50% of people. However, the source of those T cells has been speculative. Using human blood samples derived before the SARS-CoV-2 virus was discovered in 2019, we mapped 142 T cell epitopes across the SARS-CoV-2 genome to facilitate precise interrogation of the SARS-CoV-2-specific CD4+ T cell repertoire.
We demonstrate a range of pre-existing memory CD4+ T cells that are cross-reactive with comparable affinity to SARS-CoV-2 and the common cold coronaviruses HCoV-OC43, HCoV-229E, HCoV-NL63, or HCoV-HKU1. Thus, variegated T cell memory to coronaviruses that cause the common cold may underlie at least some of the extensive heterogeneity observed in COVID-19 disease.