Immunization with an inactivated virus is one of the strategies currently being tested towards developing a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. One of the methods used to inactivate viruses is exposure to high doses of ionizing radiation to damage their nucleic acids. While gamma (γ) rays effectively induce lesions in the RNA, envelope proteins are also highly damaged in the process. This in turn may alter their antigenic properties, affecting their capacity to induce an adaptive immune response able to confer effective protection. Here, we modeled the effect of sparsely and densely ionizing radiation on SARS-CoV-2 using the Monte Carlo toolkit Geant4-DNA. With a realistic 3D target virus model, we calculated the expected number of lesions in the spike and membrane proteins, as well as in the viral RNA. Our findings showed that γ rays produced significant spike protein damage, but densely ionizing charged particles induced less membrane damage for the same level of RNA lesions, because a single ion traversal through the nuclear envelope was sufficient to inactivate the virus. We propose that accelerated charged particles produce inactivated viruses with little structural damage to envelope proteins, thereby representing a new and effective tool for developing vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 and other enveloped viruses.

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