Antibody-dependent enhancement and SARS-CoV-2 vaccines and therapies

Wen Shi Lee, Adam K. Wheatley, Stephen J. KentBrandon J. DeKosky

Nature Microbiology


Antibody-based drugs and vaccines against severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) are being expedited through preclinical and clinical development. Data from the study of SARS-CoV and other respiratory viruses suggest that anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies could exacerbate COVID-19 through antibody-dependent enhancement (ADE). Previous respiratory syncytial virus and dengue virus vaccine studies revealed human clinical safety risks related to ADE, resulting in failed vaccine trials. Here, we describe key ADE mechanisms and discuss mitigation strategies for SARS-CoV-2 vaccines and therapies in development. We also outline recently published data to evaluate the risks and opportunities for antibody-based protection against SARS-CoV-2.


The emergence and rapid global spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2), the causative agent of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), has resulted in substantial global morbidity and mortality along with widespread social and economic disruption. SARS-CoV-2 is a betacoronavirus closely related to SARS-CoV (with ~80% sequence identity), which caused the SARS outbreak in 2002. Its next closest human coronavirus relative is Middle East respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus (MERS-CoV; ~54% sequence identity), which caused Middle East respiratory syndrome in 2012 (refs. 1,2). SARS-CoV-2 is also genetically related to other endemic human coronaviruses that cause milder infections: HCoV-HKU1 (~52% sequence identity), HCoV-OC43 (~51%), HCoV-NL63 (~49%) and HCoV-229E (~48%)1. SARS-CoV-2 is even more closely related to coronaviruses identified in horseshoe bats, suggesting that horseshoe bats are the primary animal reservoir with a possible intermediate transmission event in pangolins3.

Cellular entry of SARS-CoV-2 is mediated by the binding of the viral spike (S) protein to its cellular receptor, angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2)4,5. Other host entry factors have been identified, including neuropilin-1 (refs. 6,7) and TMPRSS2, a transmembrane serine protease involved in S protein maturation4. The SARS-CoV-2 S protein consists of the S1 subunit, which contains the receptor binding domain (RBD), and the S2 subunit, which mediates membrane fusion for viral entry8. A major goal of vaccine and therapeutic development is to generate antibodies that prevent the entry of SARS-CoV-2 into cells by blocking either ACE2–RBD binding interactions or S-mediated membrane fusion.

One potential hurdle for antibody-based vaccines and therapeutics is the risk of exacerbating COVID-19 severity via antibody-dependent enhancement (ADE). ADE can increase the severity of multiple viral infections, including other respiratory viruses such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)9,10 and measles11,12. ADE in respiratory infections is included in a broader category named enhanced respiratory disease (ERD), which also includes non-antibody-based mechanisms such as cytokine cascades and cell-mediated immunopathology (Box 1). ADE caused by enhanced viral replication has been observed for other viruses that infect macrophages, including dengue virus13,14 and feline infectious peritonitis virus (FIPV)15. Furthermore, ADE and ERD has been reported for SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV both in vitro and in vivo. The extent to which ADE contributes to COVID-19 immunopathology is being actively investigated.

In this Perspective, we discuss the possible mechanisms of ADE in SARS-CoV-2 and outline several risk mitigation principles for vaccines and therapeutics. We also highlight which types of studies are likely to reveal the relevance of ADE in COVID-19 disease pathology and examine how the emerging data might influence clinical interventions. Read More » “Antibody-dependent enhancement and SARS-CoV-2 vaccines and therapies”

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