University of Birmingham scientists in new COVID-19 study

Digital representation of COVID-19 virus

University of Birmingham researchers are part of a new study seeking to understand why some people become infected with COVID-19 after vaccination or prior infection while others do not.

The new UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA)-led SARS-COV2 immunity and reinfection evaluation (SIREN) study has been launched by Public Health England (PHE) with £1.5million in funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

This study will recruit health care professionals from SIREN, as well as the University of Birmingham-led COVID-19 Convalescent immunity (COCO) study cohort, and a number of other research cohorts. It will work with other national research consortia, including the Protective Immunity from T-Cells in Healthcare workers (PITCH) study, which is being carried out in collaboration with the University of Birmingham, to assess participants’ detailed immune system response to COVID-19 infections and vaccinations.

Professor Alex Richter, of the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy, who is leading the work in SIREN that will exam the immune assessment in those with vaccine breakthrough in a sub-study call VIBRANT said: “The research will seek to answer a number of key questions, including why some people get reinfections or infections after vaccination, while others do not. It will also assess how long immunity from vaccinations lasts, how the timeline differs between the different vaccines and how changes in the SARS-CoV-2 virus genetic make-up might evade the immune response.”

Nearly 50,000 healthcare professionals are enrolled in these existing research studies and are being monitored for breakthrough infection. Individuals who test positive for COVID-19, despite having had two doses of the vaccine or a previous confirmed infection, will be analysed by further specialised clinical interviews and tests to determine whether there are aspects of their immune response that differ from individuals who do not contract COVID-19. This could help to identify factors that increase the risk of ‘breakthrough’ infections – where someone catches COVID-19 despite being vaccinated.

Participants may also be asked if they would like to participate in analysis of their genetic code, to see if there are particular mutations in their DNA that might predict a poor response to vaccination.

Dr Susan Hopkins, COVID-19 Strategic Response Director at PHE said: “Understanding the immune response is essential, not only to determine who is most at risk of infections after vaccination, but also for vaccine developers who can target key components of the immune response effectively for future booster vaccines. We are pleased that this funding will allow us to better understand immunity and are very grateful to the nearly 50,000 participants who have given up their time to take part in the study.”

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said: “Alongside the recent launch of a new UK-wide antibody testing programme, this new study will help us gain valuable insights into the immune response following vaccination or natural infection. Our historic vaccination programme continues to prevent millions of infections and save over 95,000 lives in England alone. I encourage everyone to get both jabs so they can protect themselves and those around them.”

Find out more