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Infectious Diseases

Updated 20 May 2020

Analysis of how immune system responds to coronavirus is good news for vaccine developments

A study found that the way antiviral T-cells in the human body respond to the coronavirus holds promise for the development of vaccines.

As scientists worldwide are racing towards a vaccine against Covid-19 infection, experts are warning us that this may take a long time – and that a vaccine may still not be effective enough, as there is no certainty that the vaccine will elicit a lasting response from the immune system.

But now, some of that uncertainty has been alleviated slightly by Dr Alessandro Sette and Shane Crotty at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology.

Their new study was published on 14 May 2020 in the journal Cell and documents a robust antiviral immune response to SARS-Cov-2 according to a news release. The research found that the body’s immune response is able to recognise the SARS-Cov-2 pathogen in a number of ways – which means that we don’t have to be scared that a vaccine will cause an unwanted response from our immune system.  

Good news for vaccine development

"If we had seen only marginal immune responses, we would have been concerned, but what we see is a very robust T-cell response against the spike protein, which is the target of most ongoing Covid-19 efforts, as well as other viral proteins. These findings are really good news for vaccine development," said Dr Sette in a news statement.

"All efforts to predict the best vaccine candidates and fine-tune pandemic control measures hinge on understanding the immune response to the virus. People were really worried that Covid-19 doesn't induce immunity, and reports about people getting re-infected reinforced these concerns, but knowing now that the average person makes a solid immune response should largely put those concerns to rest,” stated Crotty.

What the research entailed

Sette and his team of researchers made use of bioinformatics tools to help predict which fragments of SARS-CoV-2 will be able to activate T-cells in earlier research.

In the latest research, the team isolated T-cells from adults who recently recovered from mild Covid-19. They then wanted to determine whether these T-cells could recognise the so-called predicted protein fragments from the virus itself.

"We specifically chose to study people who had a normal disease course and didn't require hospitalisation to provide a solid benchmark for what a normal immune response looks like, since the virus can do some very unusual things in some people," says Sette.

All the patients had solid responses from their T-cells, which means that they were able to produce adequate antibodies.

This means that the virus induced exactly what they wanted to see from a successful antiviral response, according to Crotty.

A solid foundation

The research results don’t suggest that people will not have any negative immune responses, but it’s a solid, important baseline for the future.

"We have a solid starting foundation to now ask whether there's a difference in the type of immune response in people who have severe outcomes and require hospitalisation versus people who can recover at home or are even asymptomatic," stated Sette.

 "But not only that; we now have an important tool to determine whether the immune response in people who have received an experimental vaccine resembles what you would expect to see in a protective immune response to Covid-19, as opposed to an insufficient or detrimental response."

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