COVID-19 vaccine candidates based on modified vaccinia virus Ankara expressing the SARS-CoV-2 spike induce robust T- and B-cell immune responses and full efficacy in mice

Juan García-Arriaza, Urtzi Garaigorta, Patricia Pérez, Adrián Lázaro-Frías, Carmen Zamora, Pablo Gastaminza, Carlos Del Fresno, José M Casasnovas, Carlos Óscar S Sorzano, David Sancho, Mariano Esteban
Journal of Virology 2021 January 7
Vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of the COVID-19 pandemic, are urgently needed. We developed two COVID-19 vaccines based on modified vaccinia virus Ankara (MVA) vectors expressing the entire SARS-CoV-2 spike (S) protein (MVA-CoV2-S); their immunogenicity was evaluated in mice using DNA/MVA or MVA/MVA prime/boost immunizations. Both vaccines induced robust, broad and polyfunctional S-specific CD4+ (mainly Th1) and CD8+ T-cell responses, with a T effector memory phenotype. DNA/MVA immunizations elicited higher T-cell responses. All vaccine regimens triggered high titers of IgG antibodies specific for the S, as well as for the receptor-binding domain; the predominance of the IgG2c isotype was indicative of Th1 immunity. Notably, serum samples from vaccinated mice neutralized SARS-CoV-2 in cell cultures, and those from MVA/MVA immunizations showed a higher neutralizing capacity. Remarkably, one or two doses of MVA-CoV2-S protect humanized K18-hACE2 mice from a lethal dose of SARS-CoV-2. In addition, two doses of MVA-CoV2-S confer full inhibition of virus replication in the lungs. These results demonstrate the robust immunogenicity and full efficacy of MVA-based COVID-19 vaccines in animal models and support its translation to the clinic. IMPORTANCE The continuous dissemination of the novel emerging SARS-CoV-2 virus, with more than 78 million infected cases worldwide and higher than 1,700,000 deaths as of December 23, 2020, highlights the urgent need for the development of novel vaccines against COVID-19. With this aim, we have developed novel vaccine candidates based on the poxvirus modified vaccinia virus Ankara (MVA) strain expressing the full-length SARS-CoV-2 spike (S) protein, and we have evaluated their immunogenicity in mice using DNA/MVA or MVA/MVA prime/boost immunization protocols. The results showed the induction of a potent S-specific T-cell response and high titers of neutralizing antibodies. Remarkably, humanized K18-hACE2 mice immunized with one or two doses of the MVA-based vaccine were 100% protected from SARS-CoV-2 lethality. Moreover, two doses of the vaccine prevented virus replication in lungs. Our findings prove the robust immunogenicity and efficacy of MVA-based COVID-19 vaccines in animal models and support its translation to the clinic.

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