A team of scientists at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) has recently made an important discovery in identifying a set of potential vaccine targets for the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, providing crucial leads for guiding experimental efforts towards the vaccine development against the novel pneumonia (COVID-19) caused by the virus. Like SARS-CoV, which caused the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2003, SARS-CoV-2 belongs to the same Betacoronavirus genus. By considering the genetic similarity between SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-CoV, the team leveraged experimentally-determined immunological data to identify a set of SARS-CoV- derived B cell and T cell epitopes that exactly match to SARS-CoV-2. Epitopes are biomarkers recognized by the immune system to trigger actions against the virus. As no mutation has been observed in the identified epitopes among the available SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequences, immune targeting of these epitopes may potentially offer protection against the novel pneumonia COVID-19. The team, led by data scientists Professor Matthew McKay and Dr. Ahmed Abdul Quadeer, expected that their work can assist in guiding experimental research towards the development of effective vaccines against SARS- CoV-2. Professor McKay highlighted that "Despite similarities between SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2, there is genetic variation between the two, and it is not obvious if epitopes that elicit an immune response against SARS-CoV will likely be effective against SARS-CoV-2. We found that only roughly 20% of the SARS-CoV epitopes map identically to SARS-CoV-2, and believe these are promising candidates." "For the identified T cell epitopes, we also performed a population coverage analysis and determined a set of epitopes that is estimated to provide broad coverage globally, as well as in China" said Dr. Quadeer.
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