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Early immune response in mice immunized with a semi-split inactivated vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 containing S protein-free particles and subunit S protein


The development of a vaccine against COVID-19 is a hot topic for many research laboratories all over the world. Our aim was to design a semi-split inactivated vaccine offering a wide range of multi-epitope determinants important for the immune system including not only the spike (S) protein but also the envelope, membrane and nucleocapsid proteins. We designed a semi-split vaccine prototype consisting of S protein-depleted viral particles and free S protein. Next, we investigated its immunogenic potential in BALB/c mice. The animals were immunized intradermally or intramuscularly with the dose adjusted with buffer or addition of aluminum hydroxide, respectively. The antibody response was evaluated by plasma analysis at 7 days after the first or second dose. The immune cell response was studied by flow cytometry analysis of splenocytes. The data showed a very early onset of both S protein-specific antibodies and virus-neutralizing antibodies at 90% inhibition regardless of the route of vaccine administration. However, significantly higher levels of neutralizing antibodies were detected in the intradermally (geometric mean titer - GMT of 7.8 ± 1.4) than in the intramuscularly immunized mice (GMT of 6.2 ± 1.5). In accordance with this, stimulation of cellular immunity by the semi-split vaccine was suggested by elevated levels of B and T lymphocyte subpopulations in the murine spleens. These responses were more predominant in the intradermally immunized mice compared with the intramuscular route of administration. The upward trend in the levels of plasmablasts, memory B cells, Th1 and Th2 lymphocytes, including follicular helper T cells, was confirmed even in mice receiving the vaccine intradermally at a dose of 0.5 μg. We demonstrated that the semi-split vaccine is capable of eliciting both humoral and cellular immunity early after vaccination. Our prototype thus represents a promising step toward the development of an efficient anti-COVID-19 vaccine for human use.

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