Preclinical evaluation of a synthetic peptide vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 inducing multiepitopic and cross-reactive humoral neutralizing and cellular CD4 and CD8 responses
Identification of relevant epitopes is crucial for the development of subunit peptide vaccines inducing neutralizing and cellular immunity against SARS-CoV-2. Our aim was the characterization of epitopes in the receptor-binding domain (RBD) of SARS-CoV-2 spike (S) protein to generate a peptide vaccine. Epitope mapping using a panel of 10 amino acid overlapped 15-mer peptides covering region 401-515 from RBD did not identify linear epitopes when tested with sera from infected individuals or from RBD-immunized mice. However, immunization of mice with these 15-mer peptides identified four peptides located at region 446-480 that induced antibodies recognizing the peptides and RBD/S1 proteins. Immunization with peptide 446-480 from S protein formulated with Freund's adjuvant or with CpG oligodeoxinucleotide/Alum induced polyepitopic antibody responses in BALB/c and C56BL/6J mice, recognizing RBD (titres of 3 x 10(4)-3 x 10(5), depending on the adjuvant) and displaying neutralizing capacity (80-95% inhibition capacity; p < 0.05) against SARS-CoV-2. Murine CD4 and CD8T-cell epitopes were identified in region 446-480 and vaccination experiments using HLA transgenic mice suggested the presence of multiple human T-cell epitopes. Antibodies induced by peptide 446-480 showed broad recognition of S proteins and S-derived peptides belonging to SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern.