The team of researchers from Imperial College London found that people with higher levels of T-cells caused by common cold coronaviruses are less likely to become infected with SARS-CoV-2. T-cells in the body can play a number of different roles. They can act as “killer cells”, attacking cells that have been infected with a virus or another kind of pathogen. Or they can act as “helper cells” by supporting other cells to produce antibodies.
The Imperial researchers say the study, published in Nature Communications, provides the first evidence of a protective role for these T-cells in COVID-19.
Previous studies have shown that T-cells induced by other coronaviruses can recognise SARS-CoV-2.
But new study examines how the presence of these T-cells at the time of SARS-CoV-2 exposure affects whether someone becomes infected.
The scientists claim the findings do in fact suggest that the presence of T-cells caused by a common cold do provide higher levels of immunity.
The researchers said that this could set out a blueprint for a second-generation, universal vaccine that could prevent infection from current and future Covid variants.
This also includes the new Omicron variant.
Since the very beginning of the pandemic, there’s been a lot of debate about how to test immunity to COVID-19.
Previous research has identified that T-cell responses can be quite long-lasting and that they might offer a more definitive way of showing who has been infected and who hasn’t.
But until recently, it was not proved whether T-cells are protective in their own right.
T-cells are white blood cells that originate in the marrow.
When people become unwell from COVID-19, their white blood cell count goes down a lot, but we know that it’s their T-cells that are particularly impacted.
We don’t know yet if the T-cells actually die, or if they’ve just moved somewhere else.
Another study by researchers at the University of Melbourne the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology also found that T-cells should be able to tackle the virus.
Co-leader of the research, Prof Matthew McKay from the University of Melbourne, said: “Even if Omicron, or some other variant for that matter, can potentially escape antibodies, a robust T-cell response can still be expected to offer protection and help to prevent significant illness.”
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And now, there has been some discussion as to whether to create a vaccine that creates T-cell immunity, rather than an antibody response.
Prof McKay said: “Based on our data, we anticipate that T-cell responses elicited by vaccines and boosters, for example, will continue to help protect against Omicron, as observed for other variants.
“We believe this presents some positive news in the global fight against Omicron.”
And back in November, Oxfordshire-based company Emergex announced that it would start clinical trials of a second-generation vaccine that uses T-cells to kill infected cells.
It has been suggested that these could offer longer-lasting immunity than current vaccines.