NewsThe surprising results of the COVID-19 immunity experiment

The surprising results of the COVID-19 immunity experiment

New research on the coronavirus
New research on the coronavirus
Images source: © Getty Images | Peter Byrne - PA Images
Robert Kędzierski

22 June 2024 12:44

Scientists from University College London have discovered that the key to avoiding SARS-CoV-2 infection may be the rapid response of specialised immune cells in the nose and increased activity of an early warning gene. The research findings could help develop more effective therapies and vaccines.

British media describe an experiment in which 36 healthy, unvaccinated volunteers who had not previously contracted COVID-19 were given a small dose of the coronavirus nasally. The experiment took place in 2021, at the peak of the pandemic. Today, we know its results. What do they tell us?

this is how the coronavirus infects. research results revealed

Scientists monitored the activity of immune cells in the blood and nasal mucosa of 16 participants, allowing them to create a detailed picture of the immune response before, during, and after exposure to SARS-CoV-2. The volunteers were divided into three distinct groups: six people developed a persistent infection and got sick; three people temporarily tested positive but did not develop a full infection; and seven people experienced a so-called incomplete infection—they never tested positive, but studies showed their immune system responded to contact with the virus.

In the groups with incomplete and temporarily positive infection, samples taken before exposure to COVID-19 showed high activity of a gene called HLA-DQA2. This gene was present in antigen-presenting cells, which signal a threat to the immune system. Dr Kaylee Worlock from UCL, the study's lead author, explains that these cells take up a small amount of the virus and present it to immune cells, signalling that a foreign agent needs to be fought.

The findings, published in Nature, suggest that people who have high levels of activity in this gene (HLA-DQA2) may have a more efficient immune response to Covid, meaning the infection never gets beyond the body’s first line of defence. However, they were not completely immune – the volunteers were followed after the study and some later caught Covid in the community, reports The Guardian.

Scientists observed a rapid immune response in nasal cells within a day of exposure in people who temporarily tested positive and a slower response in the blood. In contrast, in those who developed full infection, the reaction in the nose was much slower, beginning on average five days after contact with the virus, allowing SARS-CoV-2 to take hold in the body.

Potentially more effective vaccines

According to the research team, the obtained results could form the basis for developing more effective therapies and vaccines that mimic the body's optimal defence responses. Dr Marko Nikolić, the senior author of the study from University College London, emphasises that these discoveries greatly enhance our understanding of the full range of immune responses, which could help in creating potential treatments and vaccines that mimic these natural protective mechanisms.

The study sheds new light on the early stages of SARS-CoV-2 infection, determining whether the virus will take root or be quickly eliminated before a full-blown disease develops. Understanding these processes could be crucial for developing more effective strategies to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

Although the results are promising, scientists stress that further research on a larger group of volunteers is necessary to confirm the observed relationships and better understand the immunity mechanisms to SARS-CoV-2. This does not change the fact that these findings represent an important step towards more effectively dealing with the current and potential future pandemics.

The UK Covid-19 Human Challenge study is the first in the world where healthy volunteers were intentionally infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Although controversial from an ethical standpoint, controlled exposure to pathogens has long been used to understand infectious diseases better and develop more effective ways to combat them.

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