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Infectious Diseases

Updated 30 March 2020

Coronavirus: Breakthrough as researchers map out how the immune system fights the virus

After a Chinese patient infected with the Covid-19 virus recovered before clinical improvement, researchers are hopeful their discovery will fast-track potential treatment for patients in the future.

When a 47-year-old woman from Wuhan, China, presented with mild-to-moderate Covid-19 symptoms, she was admitted to a hospital in Australia where researchers from Melbourne's Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity studied her ability to fight the virus and recover before clinical improvement.

According to the research, which was published in Nature Medicine journal, people are recovering from the new coronavirus like they would from the flu.

The latest Situation Report by the World Health Organization (WHO) states that globally 414 173 cases of Covid-19 and 18 440 deaths have been confirmed.

The study

After the woman had contracted the Covid-19 virus and was admitted to hospital, a team of 13 scientists then tested her blood samples. 

Although it was already known that the immune system can fight the virus, since thousands of people have recovered from it, there were no particular insights into how this happens.

With the new research, scientists found four distinct immune-cell populations in the patient's blood that were fighting the illness, which preceded clinical recovery. 

"Three days after the patient was admitted, we saw large populations of several immune cells, which are often a tell-tale sign of recovery during seasonal influenza infection, so we predicted that the patient would recover in three days, which is what happened," said research fellow Dr Oanh Nguyen, who was one of the authors of the paper.

This study is the first to map the body’s general immune response to Covid-19, and Professor Katherine Kedzierska, study co-author, said the results were "very similar to what we see in patients with influenza". The researchers also mentioned that they have verifiable results in more patients with moderate disease.

Missing gap: further research needed

"Based on our experience with patients with influenza, we could predict recovery and that's exactly what happened in Covid-19," Kedzierska explained.

Experts say that this discovery of the type of immune cells appearing should also support the race in vaccine development for the virus that is bringing the world to a standstill.

However, Kedzierska also explained that although the team's research was "an important step in understanding recovery from Covid-19”, they now need to ask the question: “What is different or missing in people who are fatally ill?"

Scientists are therefore now focusing on studying the immune system of a bigger group of patients, including those with more severe symptoms.

*As of 25 March 2020, there are 709 confirmed positive cases of coronavirus in South Africa. Find all the updates here.

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