Three UK-wide studies investigating Covid-19's interaction with the immune system launched

The studies aim to understand why some people are unharmed by Covid-19 while others suffer severe illness. Credit: PA

Three new UK-wide studies are being launched to help answer key questions on how the immune system interacts with coronavirus.

They aim to help fight Covid-19 and develop better diagnostics, treatments and vaccines.

The scientists hope to develop better tests to define immunity and to study the body’s immune response to the disease.

They are hoping to finally understand what exactly gives immunity to the disease, which has proved difficult to answer so far.

Other aims involve investigating why some people suffer from severe life-threatening Covid-19 while others have mild or asymptomatic infections but can still transmit the virus.

Chief Medical Officer for England Professor Chris Whitty, said: “Understanding how our immune systems respond to Covid-19 is key to solving some of the important questions about this new disease.

England's Chief Medical Officer, professor Chris Whitty Credit: PA

"Including whether those who have had the disease develop immunity and how long this lasts, and why some are more severely affected.

“This is vital information to help prevent and treat the disease.”

The UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium (UK-CIC) will receive £6.5 million to bring together leading immunologists from 17 UK research institutions.

UK-CIC will also look at whether immunity to previous infection with seasonal coronaviruses (which cause the common cold) alter a person’s outcome with Covid-19.

Better understanding of these immune responses, particularly the T cell response, could provide targets for new therapies to treat Covid-19 and inform the efforts to develop a vaccine.

The project will use samples and data from major UK Covid-19 projects already under way.

Professor Paul Moss, UK-CIC principal investigator from the University of Birmingham, said: “Understanding the complexities of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 is key to successfully developing new diagnostics, treatments and vaccines against Covid-19.”

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He added: “There is so much that we still need to learn about how the novel coronavirus interacts with our immune system and, with this investment, we have a unique opportunity to answer these key questions and hasten effective pandemic control.”

Professor Tracy Hussell, theme lead for UK-CIC, from the University of Manchester, said: “The immune system is one of the most complicated systems in the human body but understanding how it reacts during and after infection with SARS-CoV-2 is critical to our ability to control this pandemic.”

Another group, the Humoral Immune Correlates of COVID-19 (HICC) consortium will receive £1.5m to study the humoral immune response – molecules produced by the immune system to fight infection, including antibodies.

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It will focus on two cohorts – NHS workers to track immunity over 12 months, and patients who have been admitted to hospital.

The consortium is a collaboration led by Professor Wilhelm Schwaeble and Professor Jonathan Heeney at the University of Cambridge and Dr Helen Baxendale at Royal Papworth Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

They said: “Understanding the role of antibody responses to SARS-CoV-2, and the role that the overactivation of the immediate innate immune response to the virus plays through complement activation in the initiation and maintenance of inflammatory disease, is critical to improve the clinical management of life-threatening cases of Covid-19.”

The third study will specifically focus on the key features of fatal Covid-19 and the impact the virus has upon the lungs and other vital organs.

The project called Inflammation in Covid-19: Exploration Of Critical Aspects Of Pathogenesis, or ICECAP, will receive £394,000.

All of the studies are funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the NIHR.