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An Insertion Unique to SARS-CoV-2 Exhibits Superantigenic Character Strengthened by Recent Mutations

Published time: 21 May 2020

Authors: Mary Hongying Chenga, She Zhanga, Rebecca A. Porrittb, Moshe Arditib, and Ivet Bahara


Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C) associated with Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a newly recognized condition in which children with recent SARS-CoV-2 infection present with a constellation of symptoms including hypotension, multiorgan involvement, and elevated inflammatory markers. These symptoms and the associated laboratory values strongly resemble toxic shock syndrome, an escalation of the cytotoxic adaptive immune response triggered upon the binding of pathogenic superantigens to MHCII molecules and T cell receptors (TCRs). Here, we used structure-based computational models to demonstrate that the SARS-CoV-2 spike (S) exhibits a high-affinity motif for binding TCR, interacting closely with both the α- and β-chains variable domains complementarity-determining regions. The binding epitope on S harbors a sequence motif unique to SARS-CoV-2 (not present in any other SARS coronavirus), which is highly similar in both sequence and structure to bacterial superantigens. Further examination revealed that this interaction between the virus and human T cells is strengthened in the context of a recently reported rare mutation (D839Y/N/E) from a European strain of SARS-CoV-2. Furthermore, the interfacial region includes selected residues from a motif shared between the SARS viruses from the 2003 and 2019 pandemics, which has intracellular adhesion molecule (ICAM)-like character. These data suggest that the SARS-CoV-2 S may act as a superantigen to drive the development of MIS-C as well as cytokine storm in adult COVID-19 patients, with important implications for the development of therapeutic approaches.

An insertion unique to SARS-CoV-2 exhibits superantigenic



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