A major new project, led by a University of Birmingham immunologist, is one of three new UK-wide studies bringing together scientists from 17 research institutions. It will receive a share of £8.4 million from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) to understand immune responses to the novel coronavirus.
The scientists' aim to develop better tests to define immunity, to study the body’s immune response to SARS-CoV-2 and to understand why some people suffer from severe life-threatening COVID-19 while others have mild or asymptomatic infections but can still transmit the virus. Importantly, these studies will determine when and how immunity persists or whether people can become re-infected.
Together, it is hoped these studies will improve the treatment of patients and inform the development of vaccines and therapies.
Led by Professor Paul Moss from the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy, the UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium (UK-CIC) will receive £6.5 million to bring together leading immunologists from 17 research institutions. The consortium will investigate key questions, including:
- How long does immunity from COVID-19 last?
- Why are some people’s immune systems better able to fight off the virus?
- Why do some people’s immune responses cause damage, especially to the lungs?
- How does the virus ‘hide from’ the immune system and how can this be tackled?
- Does immunity to previous infection with seasonal coronaviruses (which cause the common cold) alter a person’s outcome with SARS-CoV-2?
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 underway, and funded by UKRI and NIHR, including ISARIC-4C (characterizing and following more than 75,000 hospitalized patients with COVID-19) and the genomic studies COG-UK (sequencing the SARS-CoV-2 virus genomes) and GenOMICC (sequencing the genomes of people with COVID-19).
Professor Moss 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. The UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium will see the UK immunology community come together in an unprecedented way to answer questions that are crucial in helping us control this pandemic, such as how effective immunity is developed and why individuals respond differently to the disease.
“The UK is a world leader in immunology research and it’s an honour to lead this consortium to deliver a co-ordinated and agile national research programme to build our knowledge of this disease, which will translate into meaningful benefit for patients. There is so much that we still need to learn about how the novel coronavirus interacts with our immune systems and, with this investment, we have a unique opportunity to answer these key questions and hasten effective pandemic control.”
Medical Research Council, part of UKRI, Chief Executive Professor Fiona Watt said: “The UK is funding a collaboration of world-leading immunologists to investigate the major unanswered questions related to coronavirus immunity. Finding out more about the immune response to COVID-19 will be key to developing better treatments and vaccines and improving public health strategies.”
Chief Medical Officer for England and Head of the NIHR 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, including whether those who have had the disease develop immunity and how long this lasts, and why some are more severely affected.
“This investment by the NIHR and UKRI will help immunology experts to discover how our immune systems respond to SARS-CoV-2, including our T cell response. This is vital information to help prevent and treat the disease.”
Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “Thanks to the brilliant work of our world-leading scientists and researchers, we continue to gain greater knowledge and understanding of coronavirus, enabling us to rapidly develop new treatments, as well as potential new vaccines.
“These three studies will help further improve our understanding of people’s immune responses to coronavirus, ensuring that the UK continues to play a critical role in the global effort to treat and defeat it.”
These studies build on the UK’s world-class expertise and capability in global heath and infectious disease that has already shaped our understanding of the pandemic and is informing measures to tackle it.