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SARS-CoV-2 infection induces adaptive NK cell responses by spike protein-mediated induction of HLA-E expression.

ABSTRACT HLA-E expression plays a central role for modulation of NK cell function by interaction with inhibitory NKG2A and stimulatory NKG2C receptors on canonical and adaptive NK cells, respectively. Here, we demonstrate that infection of human primary lung tissue with SARS-CoV-2 leads to increased HLA-E expression and show that processing of the peptide YLQPRTFLL from the spike protein is primarily responsible for the strong, dose-dependent increase of HLA-E. Targeting the peptide site within the spike protein revealed that a single point mutation was sufficient to abrogate the increase in HLA-E expression. Spike-mediated induction of HLA-E differentially affected NK cell function: whereas degranulation, IFN-γ production, and target cell cytotoxicity were enhanced in NKG2C+ adaptive NK cells, effector functions were inhibited in NKG2A+ canonical NK cells. Analysis of a cohort of COVID-19 patients in the acute phase of infection revealed that adaptive NK cells were induced irrespective of the HCMV status, challenging the paradigm that adaptive NK cells are only generated during HCMV infection. During the first week of hospitalization, patients exhibited a selective increase of early NKG2C+ CD57- adaptive NK cells whereas mature NKG2C+ CD57+ cells remained unchanged. Further analysis of recovered patients suggested that the adaptive NK cell response is primarily driven by a wave of early adaptive NK cells during acute infection that wanes once the infection is cleared. Together, this study suggests that NK cell responses to SARS-CoV-2 infection are majorly influenced by the balance between canonical and adaptive NK cells via the HLA-E/NKG2A/C axis.

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