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Common cold protects against COVID-19

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Pre-existing T cells from past common cold at the time of SARS-CoV-2 exposure influence whether someone becomes infected

T cells produced by other coronaviruses have previously been demonstrated to recognize SARS-CoV-2, but the new study explores for the first time how the availability of these T cells at the time of SARS-CoV-2 exposure determines whether someone becomes infected.

Additionally, the researchers assert that their findings establish a framework for developing a second-generation universal vaccine capable of protecting against infection by existing and future SARS-CoV-2 strains, including Omicron.

“Being exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus doesn’t always result in infection, and we’ve been keen to understand why,” explains Dr Rhia Kundu, the study’s first author from Imperial’s National Heart & Lung Institute. “We found that high levels of pre-existing T cells, created by the body when infected with other human coronaviruses like the common cold, can protect against COVID-19 infection.

“While this is an important discovery, it is only one form of protection, and I would stress that no one should rely on this alone. Instead, the best way to protect yourself against COVID-19 is to be fully vaccinated, including getting your booster dose.”

The research began in September 2020, when the majority of people in the United Kingdom had not been infected with SARS-CoV-2 and had not been vaccinated against it. For this study, 52 people who had been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 through contact with an infected person were included. Each subject was tested for PCR at the beginning of the study, as well as four and seven days afterwards.

Blood samples were taken from the 52 individuals within 1-6 days after being exposed to the virus. This allowed the researchers to examine the amounts of pre-existing T cells produced by past common cold coronavirus infections, which also cross-recognize SARS-CoV-2 virus proteins.

Scientists found that there were much larger amounts of these cross-reactive T cells in the 26 people who did not become sick compared to the 26 people who did become infected. To fight against infection, these T cells targeted internal proteins within the SARS-CoV-2 virus rather than the spike protein on the virus’s surface.

Current vaccines do not elicit an immune response to these internal proteins. The researchers claim that, in addition to our existing successful spike protein-targeting vaccines, these interior proteins present a novel vaccine target that may provide long-term protection because T cell responses remain longer than antibody responses, which fade after a few months of immunization.

“Our study provides the clearest evidence to date that T cells induced by common cold coronaviruses play a protective role against SARS-CoV-2 infection. These T cells provide protection by attacking proteins within the virus, rather than the spike protein on its surface,” says Professor Ajit Lalvani, senior author of the study and Director of the NIHR Respiratory Infections Health Protection Research Unit at Imperial.

“The spike protein is under intense immune pressure from vaccine-induced antibody which drives evolution of vaccine escape mutants. In contrast, the internal proteins targeted by the protective T cells we identified mutate much less. Consequently, they are highly conserved between the various SARS-CoV-2 variants, including omicron. New vaccines that include these conserved, internal proteins would therefore induce broadly protective T cell responses that should protect against current and future SARS-CoV-2 variants.”

The researchers acknowledge that their study has certain limitations, including the inability to analyze demographic parameters due to the study’s small size and the fact that 88 percent of participants were of white European ethnicity.

Source: Nature

Image Credit: Getty

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