No statistical methods were used to predetermine sample size. The experiments were not randomized and the investigators were not blinded during outcome assessment.
Sample collection, preparation and storage
All studies were approved by the Institutional Review Board of Washington University in St Louis. Written consent was obtained from all participants. Seventy-seven participants who had recovered from SARS-CoV-2 infection and eleven control individuals without a history of SARS-CoV-2 infection were enrolled (Extended Data Tables 1, 4). Blood samples were collected in EDTA tubes and PBMCs were enriched by density gradient centrifugation over Ficoll 1077 (GE) or Lymphopure (BioLegend). The remaining red blood cells were lysed with ammonium chloride lysis buffer, and cells were immediately used or cryopreserved in 10% dimethyl sulfoxide in fetal bovine serum (FBS). Bone marrow aspirates of approximately 30 ml were collected in EDTA tubes from the iliac crest of 18 individuals who had recovered from COVID-19 and the control individuals. Bone marrow mononuclear cells were enriched by density gradient centrifugation over Ficoll 1077, and the remaining red blood cells were lysed with ammonium chloride buffer (Lonza) and washed with phosphate-buffered saline (PBS) supplemented with 2% FBS and 2 mM EDTA. Bone marrow plasma cells were enriched from bone marrow mononuclear cells using the CD138 Positive Selection Kit II (Stemcell) and immediately used for ELISpot or cryopreserved in 10% dimethyl sulfoxide in FBS.
Recombinant soluble spike protein (S) and its receptor-binding domain (RBD) derived from SARS-CoV-2 were expressed as previously described35. In brief, mammalian cell codon-optimized nucleotide sequences coding for the soluble version of S (GenBank: MN908947.3, amino acids (aa) 1–1,213) including a C-terminal thrombin cleavage site, T4 foldon trimerization domain and hexahistidine tag cloned into the mammalian expression vector pCAGGS. The S protein sequence was modified to remove the polybasic cleavage site (RRAR to A) and two stabilizing mutations were introduced (K986P and V987P, wild-type numbering). The RBD, along with the signal peptide (aa 1–14) plus a hexahistidine tag were cloned into the mammalian expression vector pCAGGS. Recombinant proteins were produced in Expi293F cells (Thermo Fisher Scientific) by transfection with purified DNA using the ExpiFectamine 293 Transfection Kit (Thermo Fisher Scientific). Supernatants from transfected cells were collected 3 (for S) or 4 (for RBD) days after transfection, and recombinant proteins were purified using Ni-NTA agarose (Thermo Fisher Scientific), then buffer-exchanged into PBS and concentrated using Amicon Ultracel centrifugal filters (EMD Millipore). For flow cytometry staining, recombinant S was labelled with Alexa Fluor 647- or DyLight 488-NHS ester (Thermo Fisher Scientific); excess Alexa Fluor 647 and DyLight 488 were removed using 7-kDa and 40-kDa Zeba desalting columns, respectively (Pierce). Recombinant HA from A/Michigan/45/2015 (aa 18–529, Immune Technology) was labelled with DyLight 405-NHS ester (Thermo Fisher Scientific); excess DyLight 405 was removed using 7-kDa Zeba desalting columns. Recombinant HA from A/Brisbane/02/2018 (aa 18–529) and B/Colorado/06/2017 (aa 18–546) (both Immune Technology) were biotinylated using the EZ-Link Micro NHS-PEG4-Biotinylation Kit (Thermo Fisher Scientific); excess biotin was removed using 7-kDa Zeba desalting columns.
Plates were coated with Flucelvax Quadrivalent 2019/2020 seasonal influenza virus vaccine (Sequiris), tetanus–diphtheria vaccine (Grifols), recombinant S or anti-human Ig. Direct ex vivo ELISpot was performed to determine the number of total, vaccine-binding or recombinant S-binding IgG- and IgA-secreting cells present in BMPC and PBMC samples using IgG/IgA double-colour ELISpot Kits (Cellular Technology) according to the manufacturer’s instructions. ELISpot plates were analysed using an ELISpot counter (Cellular Technology).
Assays were performed in 96-well plates (MaxiSorp, Thermo Fisher Scientific) coated with 100 μl of Flucelvax 2019/2020 or recombinant S in PBS, and plates were incubated at 4 °C overnight. Plates were then blocked with 10% FBS and 0.05% Tween-20 in PBS. Serum or plasma were serially diluted in blocking buffer and added to the plates. Plates were incubated for 90 min at room temperature and then washed 3 times with 0.05% Tween-20 in PBS. Goat anti-human IgG–HRP (Jackson ImmunoResearch, 1:2,500) was diluted in blocking buffer before adding to wells and incubating for 60 min at room temperature. Plates were washed 3 times with 0.05% Tween-20 in PBS, and then washed 3 times with PBS before the addition of o-phenylenediamine dihydrochloride peroxidase substrate (Sigma-Aldrich). Reactions were stopped by the addition of 1 M HCl. Optical density measurements were taken at 490 nm. The half-maximal binding dilution for each serum or plasma sample was calculated using nonlinear regression (GraphPad Prism v.8). The limit of detection was defined as 1:30.
Spearman’s correlation coefficients were estimated to assess the relationship between 7-month anti-S and anti-influenza virus vaccine IgG titres and the frequencies of BMPCs secreting IgG specific for S and for influenza virus vaccine, respectively. Means and pairwise differences of antibody titres at each time point were estimated using a linear mixed model analysis with a first-order autoregressive covariance structure. Time since symptom onset was treated as a categorical fixed effect for the 4 different sample time points spaced approximately 3 months apart. P values were adjusted for multiple comparisons using Tukey’s method. All analyses were conducted using SAS v.9.4 (SAS Institute) and Prism v.8.4 (GraphPad), and P values of less than 0.05 were considered significant.
Staining for flow cytometry analysis was performed using cryo-preserved magnetically enriched BMPCs and cryo-preserved PBMCs. For BMPC staining, cells were stained for 30 min on ice with CD45-A532 (HI30, Thermo Fisher Scientific, 1:50), CD38-BB700 (HIT2, BD Horizon, 1:500), CD19-PE (HIB19, 1:200), CXCR5-PE-Dazzle 594 (J252D4, 1:50), CD71-PE-Cy7 (CY1G4, 1:400), CD20-APC-Fire750 (2H7, 1:400), CD3-APC-Fire810 (SK7, 1:50) and Zombie Aqua (all BioLegend) diluted in Brilliant Stain buffer (BD Horizon). Cells were washed twice with 2% FBS and 2 mM EDTA in PBS (P2), fixed for 1 h using the True Nuclear permeabilization kit (BioLegend), washed twice with perm/wash buffer, stained for 1h with DyLight 405-conjugated recombinant HA from A/Michigan/45/2015, DyLight 488- and Alexa 647-conjugated S, Ki-67-BV711 (Ki-67, 1:200, BioLegend) and BLIMP-1-A700 (646702, 1:50, R&D), washed twice with perm/wash buffer, and resuspended in P2. For memory B cell staining, PBMCs were stained for 30 min on ice with biotinylated recombinant HAs diluted in P2, washed twice, then stained for 30 min on ice with Alexa 647-conjugated S, IgA-FITC (M24A, Millipore, 1:500), IgG-BV480 (goat polyclonal, Jackson ImmunoResearch, 1:100), IgD-SB702 (IA6-2, Thermo Fisher Scientific, 1:50), CD38-BB700 (HIT2, BD Horizon, 1:500), CD20-Pacific Blue (2H7, 1:400), CD4-BV570 (OKT4, 1:50), CD24-BV605 (ML5, 1:100), streptavidin-BV650, CD19-BV750 (HIB19, 1:100), CD71-PE (CY1G4, 1:400), CXCR5-PE-Dazzle 594 (J252D4, 1:50), CD27-PE-Cy7 (O323, 1:200), IgM-APC-Fire750 (MHM-88, 1:100), CD3-APC-Fire810 (SK7, 1:50) and Zombie NIR (all BioLegend) diluted in Brilliant Stain buffer (BD Horizon), and washed twice with P2. Cells were acquired on an Aurora using SpectroFlo v.2.2 (Cytek). Flow cytometry data were analysed using FlowJo v.10 (Treestar). In each experiment, PBMCs were included from convalescent individuals and control individuals.
Further information on research design is available in the Nature Research Reporting Summary linked to this paper.