According to few articles I read (like BBC about The people with hidden immunity against Covid-19 ):

starting out about four or five days after infection, you begin to see T cells getting activated, and indications they are specifically recognising cells infected with the virus,” says Hayday. These unlucky cells are then dispatched quickly and brutally – either directly by the T cells themselves, or by other parts of the immune system they recruit to do the unpleasant task for them – before the virus has a chance to turn them into factories that churn out more copies of itself.

When virus just entered a cell, but had no chance to churn more copies: Is surface of the cell any different? How T-cell can distinguish infected cell from non-infected?

I am no biologist, but I am fascinated about biology now, and curious to learn more. Sorry if I am not using proper terminology.

I found How do T-cells determine which cells they've already inspected? , but T-cell activation is mentioned only in the context of dendritic cells and lymph nodes. IIUC, T-cells should attack lungs cells to eliminate cells infected by covid-19 there.

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    $\begingroup$ Otherwise the coronavirus spike has a signal peptide and a transmembrane domain making it secreted and anchored onto the cell's surface $\endgroup$
    – reuns
    Jul 25, 2020 at 9:40

1 Answer 1


All cells chew up internal proteins all the time - it's part of the normal activity of cells to recycle those proteins into amino acids to be rebuilt into other proteins. The first step is chopping up the protein into peptides by the proteasome.

When a virus infects a cell, one key thing it needs to do to replicate is to have the cell start making viral proteins. However, some of these get chewed up, too.

Some of the peptide fragments get bound to major histocompatibility complex class 1 (MHC-1) molecules. These are then transported to the cell surface. This is the cell advertising "hey, this is what I've found in the trash lately."

Sort of like antibodies, T-cells only bind certain antigens, and during development the immune system learns which antigens are self versus foreign by process of elimination: if you detect it during development, it must be yours. Everything else is fair game to attack. When a killer T-cell binds strongly to the MHC-1:peptide complex, it recognizes that this is a foreign peptide and the cell presenting it must be infected or damaged in some way, and this starts a cascade that leads to apoptosis of the infected cell.


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