Three new UK-wide studies will receive £8.4 million from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) to understand immune responses to the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.
The largest of these is the UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium (UK-CIC), which receives £6.5 million in funding. It will bring together scientists at the University of Sheffield with immunologists at 16 other UK universities to investigate the following:
- How long does immunity from Covid-19 last?
- Why are some people’s immune systems better able to fight off the virus?
- Why do some people’s immune responses cause damage, especially to the lungs?
- How does the virus ‘hide’ from the immune system and how can this be tackled?
- Does immunity to previous infection with seasonal coronaviruses (which cause the common cold) alter a person’s outcome with SARS-CoV-2?
Specifically, the Sheffield team will study two main areas:
- How the body’s immune system responds to SARS-CoV-2 and why some people suffer severe, life-threatening Covid-19 while others have mild or asymptomatic infections, but can still transmit the virus. They will examine the role of circulating immune cells called myeloid cells – and why they can sometimes trigger the disruption of blood vessels in tissues like the lung and brain, causing major complications.
- How T cells, a type of lymphocyte which develops in the thymus gland and plays a central role in the immune response, contribute to immunity to the virus to prevent re-infection, how long this persists and if re-infection does occur, whether this is due to immunity waning or because the virus can ‘escape’ from this response.
It is hoped the studies of the UK-CIC will significantly improve our understanding of this new virus and thus treatment outcomes for patients. They may also inform the development of vaccines and new therapies for Covid-19.
The project will use samples and data from major UK COVID-19 projects already underway and funded by UKRI and NIHR, including ISARIC-4C (characterising and following more than 75,000 hospitalised patients with COVID-19) and the genomic studies COG-UK (sequencing the SARS-CoV-2 virus genomes) and GenOMICC (sequencing the genomes of people with Covid-19).
The Sheffield team is led by Professor Claire Lewis from the Department of Oncology and Metabolism and Professor Sarah Rowland-Jones, Dr Thushan de Silva and Professor Endre Kiss-Toth from the Department of Infection, Immunity and Cardiovascular Disease.
The Humoral Immune Correlates of COVID-19 (HICC) consortium will receive £1.5 million to study the humoral immune response – molecules produced by the immune system to fight infection, including antibodies. They will focus on two groups: NHS workers – in collaboration with SIREN – to track immunity over 12 months, and hospitalised patients.
Both the UK-CIC and HICC have been given urgent public health research status by the Department of Health and Social Care to prioritise their delivery by the health and care system.
The third study will specifically focus on the key features of fatal COVID-19 and the impact the virus has upon the lungs and other vital organs. The project, titled ‘Inflammation in Covid-19: Exploration of Critical Aspects of Pathogenesis’, or ICECAP, will receive £394,000.