COVID Immune Confirmation May Help Find Vaccine
Nobody yet knows if any of the hundreds of COVID-19 vaccines under development will work. Talk of “moonshots” and, recently, a prominent vaccine trial being temporarily suspended, have received wide coverage in the media.
Because as a species we don’t have any existing immunity to COVID-19, we are at the mercy of the virus until a vaccine is developed. Without a vaccine, only rapid and extensive testing of potential infections can identify hotspots and stamp them out, before they become bigger problems.
Sadly, as the testing system in the UK suffers from widely reported difficulties, a vaccine really does seem to be the only way back to normal. Without one being able to travel, socialise, shop, work and learn will stay restricted for a very long time to come.
Developing vaccines is difficult
The difficulties in making vaccines that work are well known. Trials of an HIV vaccine began in 1987, yet no vaccine for HIV exists today. The vaccine for Dengue fever doesn’t work particularly well and can cause some pretty horrid side effects too.
However, some recent news in a couple of science papers may hold out some light in the fight against the virus. Each paper has found string indications that we can develop antibodies against the virus and, importantly, that they seem to remain in the body for some time. That means the chances of finding a vaccine that works, and works well, have markedly increased.
Antibodies found after infection
One paper, based on a good sized cohort (1,215 patients in Iceland) and published in the New England Journal of Medicine (a gold standard source of medical reporting) found that more than 90% of people tested had antibodies. The tests were conducted after infection and again four months later. Those who had been hospitalised, who had more serious infection, had higher levels of antibodies. The same was true of more mature patients and male patients, both of whom are at higher risk from COVID-19.
The strength of the immune response is incredibly positive, because the longer antibodies stay in our bodies, the better the chance they can offer protection. If antibodies remain in the body for long periods, it also increases the chance that mass screening for antibodies may illuminate the spread of the virus for researchers. That may make it easier to fight.
“T-cell” response found
In another paper, published recently in Nature Immunology, a team of researches from the Medical Research Council found that the body creates a strong “T cell” response to COVID-19 infection. T-cells play a hugely important role in fighting infections and underpinning lasting protection from viruses. The findings mirrored the Icelandic study in showing that more sever infections developed a stronger immune response.
The team found that T-cells could recognise the ‘spike protein’ that is so pronounced in COVID, as well as other parts of the virus. That offers the prospect that a vaccine could indeed target those areas.
Cautious optimism for vaccine
Sadly, there is much that could still go wrong with the development of any vaccine. Large clinical trials will be needed to prove the efficacy of any candidate, rather than media headlines. No test exists that can show if a vaccine works or not, other than large scale trials. The Russian “Sputnik V” vaccine has not been widely tested at all, which does entail a risk for those having the vaccine.
The fact that an immune response is triggered and seems to last for some time does suggest that, as with many viruses, a vaccine that works may well be found. The hope is that it is much quicker than the HIV candidate vaccines.
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