Neutralising antibody activity against SARS-CoV-2 variants, including Omicron, in an elderly cohort vaccinated with BNT162b2

SARS-CoV-2 variants threaten the effectiveness of tools we have developed to mitigate against serious COVID-19. This is especially true in clinically vulnerable sections of society including the elderly. Using sera from BNT162b2 (Pfizer–BioNTech) vaccinated individuals aged between 70 and 89 (vaccinated with two doses 3-weeks apart) we examined the neutralising antibody (nAb) response to wildtype SARS-CoV-2. Between 3 and 20-weeks post 2nd dose, nAb titres dropped 4.9-fold to a median titre of 21.3 (ND80) with 21.6% of individuals having no detectable nAbs at the later time point. Experiments examining the neutralisation of twenty-one different SARS-CoV-2 variant spike proteins confirmed a significant potential for antigenic escape, especially for the Omicron (BA.1), Beta (B.1.351), Delta (B.1.617.2), Theta (P.3), C.1.2 and B.1.638 variants. Interestingly, however, the recently-emerged sub-lineage AY.4.2 was more efficiently neutralised than parental Delta pseudotypes. Combining pseudotype neutralisation with specific receptor binding domain (RBD) ELISAs we confirmed that changes to position 484 in the spike RBD were predominantly responsible for SARS-CoV-2 nAb escape, although the effect of spike mutations is both combinatorial and additive. Lastly, using sera from the same individuals boosted with a 3rd dose of BNT162b2 we showed that high overall levels of neutralising antibody titre can provide significant levels of cross-protection against Omicron. These data provide evidence that SARS-CoV-2 neutralising antibodies wane over time and that antigenically variable SARS-CoV-2 variants are circulating, highlighting the importance of ongoing surveillance and booster programmes. Furthermore, they provide important data to inform risk assessment of new SARS-CoV-2 variants, such as Omicron, as they emerge.

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