Individuals with potential exposure to SARS-CoV-2 do not necessarily develop PCR or antibody positivity, suggesting some may clear sub-clinical infection before seroconversion. T-cells can contribute to the rapid clearance of SARS-CoV-2 and other coronavirus infections1–3. We hypothesised that pre-existing memory T-cell responses, with cross-protective potential against SARS-CoV-24–11, would expand in vivo to support rapid viral control, aborting infection. We measured SARS-CoV-2-reactive T-cells, including those against the early transcribed replication transcription complex (RTC)12,13, in intensively monitored healthcare workers (HCW) remaining repeatedly negative by PCR, antibody binding, and neutralisation (seronegative HCW, SN-HCW). SN-HCW had stronger, more multispecific memory T-cells than an unexposed pre-pandemic cohort, and more frequently directed against the RTC than the structural protein-dominated responses seen post-detectable infection (matched concurrent cohort). SN-HCW with the strongest RTC-specific T-cells had an increase in IFI27, a robust early innate signature of SARS-CoV-214, suggesting abortive infection. RNA-polymerase within RTC was the largest region of high sequence conservation across human seasonal coronaviruses (HCoV) and SARS-CoV-2 clades. RNA-polymerase was preferentially targeted (amongst regions tested) by T-cells from pre-pandemic cohorts and SN-HCW. RTC epitope-specific T-cells cross-recognising HCoV variants were identified in SN-HCW. Enriched pre-existing RNA-polymerase-specific T-cells expanded in vivo to preferentially accumulate in the memory response after putative abortive compared to overt SARS-CoV-2 infection. Our data highlight RTC-specific T-cells as targets for vaccines against endemic and emerging Coronaviridae.
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© 2021, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Limited.