Single-Shot COVID-19 Vaccine Protects Against COVID-19 Variant B.1.351 in Rhesus Macaques

Written by: Jacqueline Mitchell Contact: Chloe Meck,

JUNE 23, 2021

BOSTON – SARS-CoV-2 variants have emerged that can spread more easily, cause more serious illness, and escape from antibodies induced by infection or vaccination. In a new study published in Nature, scientists led by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) immunologist Dan Barouch, MD, PhD, tested Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine in rhesus macaques and challenged them with the viral variant B.1.351 or the original strain WA1/2020. Barouch and colleagues — who helped develop Johnson & Johnson's single-shot viral vector vaccine, called Ad26.COV2.S — report that the vaccine produces robust protection against both strains. The findings have important implications for vaccine control of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern.

"The emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants that partially evade neutralizing antibodies poses a threat to the efficacy of current COVID-19 vaccines," said Barouch, senior author of the study and Director of Vaccine and Virology Research at BIDMC. "Here we show that the Ad26.COV2.S vaccine elicits humoral and cellular immune responses that cross-react with the B.1.351 variant and protects against the B.1.351 challenge in rhesus macaques."

Barouch, who is also Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and colleagues immunized rhesus macaques with the Ad26.COV2.S vaccine and challenged half the animals with either the originally identified strain of SARS-Cov-2 (WA1/2020) or with the B.1.351 variant. The vaccine provided robust protection against both strains of the virus but induced lower antibody levels against the B.1.351 variant compared to the original strain. In contrast, non-neutralizing antibody responses and T cell responses showed no evidence of decreased responses against the B.1.351 variant.

"These data are consistent with our recent findings in humans who participated in the phase 3 clinical trial of this vaccine conducted in the United States, Latin America and South Africa," said Barouch, who is also a member of the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard. "We showed that the vaccine elicited cross-reactive antibody responses also against the Alpha (B.1.1.7), Gamma (P.1) and Epsilon (CAL.20C) variants and that T cell responses were similar against the SARS-CoV-2 variants."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 10 million Americans have received Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine since it received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The single-shot viral vector vaccine was authorized for use based on published Phase 3 efficacy data showing clinical efficacy against symptomatic COVID-19 in the United States, as well as in Latin America and South Africa where most sequenced COVID-19 cases were caused by variants.

Co-authors included Jingyou Yu, Lisa H. Tostanoski, Noe Mercado, Katherine McMahan, Jinyan Liu, Catherine Jacob-Dolan, Abishek Chandrashekar, Tochi Anioke, Esther A. Bondzie, Aiquan Chang, Sarah Gardner, Victoria M. Giffin, David L. Hope, Felix Nampanya, Joseph Nkolola, Shivani Patel, Owen Sanborn, Daniel Sellers, Huahua Wan of BIDMC; Galit Alter and Caroline Atyeo of the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard; David R. Martinez, Ralph S. Baric of University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill; Tammy Hays, Katherine Bauer and Amanda J. Martinot of Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine; Laurent Pessaint, Daniel Valentin, Zack Flinchbaugh, Renita Brown, Anthony Cook, Deandre Bueno-Wilkerson, Elyse Teow, Hanne Andersen, Mark G. Lewis of Bioqual; Frank Wegmann, Roland Zahn and Hanneke Schuitemaker of Janssen.

This project was funded in part by the Department of Health and Human Services Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) under contract HHS0100201700018C; Janssen Vaccines & Prevention BV; Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard; Musk Foundation; Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness (MassCPR); and the National Institutes of Health (CA260476).

Barouch is a co-inventor on provisional vaccine patents (63/121,482; 63/133,969; 63/135,182). For a complete list of financial disclosures, please see the publication.

About Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is a patient care, teaching and research affiliate of Harvard Medical School and consistently ranks as a national leader among independent hospitals in National Institutes of Health funding. BIDMC is the official hospital of the Boston Red Sox.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is a part of Beth Israel Lahey Health, a health care system that brings together academic medical centers and teaching hospitals, community and specialty hospitals, more than 4,800 physicians and 36,000 employees in a shared mission to expand access to great care and advance the science and practice of medicine through groundbreaking research and education.