Oxford University researchers have found that infection with coronavirus leads to a significant T cell response. This includes T cell ‘memory’ to “potentially fight future infections”.

This paper, published in Nature Immunology, is based on the work of the Medical Research Council Human Immunology Unit and the Oxford Institute of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences.

It was already clear that infection with coronavirus leads to a B cell antibody response, but previous research had been less perceptive regarding whether coronavirus prompts the production of virus-specific T cells. Antibodies destroy the inciting agents – viruses and bacteria – while T cells latch onto cells in the body which are already diseased. This includes virus-infected cells.

Professor Dong, who led the study, said: “By studying the T cell immune response in depth and breadth, we will begin to build a better understanding of why some individuals develop milder disease, and how we might be able to prevent or treat infections.”

He added that “T cells may also be longer lasting than antibodies, and so could offer alternative methods to diagnose whether someone has had a past COVID-19 infection, after antibody levels have waned.”

Study co-lead Professor Graham Ogg, Interim Director of the Medical Research Council Human Immunology Unit, said: “We found that individuals with mild COVID-19 had a different pattern of T cell response when compared to those with more severe infection; this could help provide insights to the nature of immune protection.” He continued that “the research demonstrates the power of bringing together many clinicians and scientists to address a global challenge, and we are extremely grateful to all of those involved, especially the research participants.”

Other scientists across the country were enthused by the new paper. Professor Peter Openshaw from Imperial College London, the Immunology Lead for UK ISARIC, said: “It is exciting to see the speed with which UK scientists can generate such novel findings and the spirit of collaboration that underpins it. T cells are important in clearing the virus and recognise parts of SARS-CoV-2 that are not seen by antibody. The role that they play in disease is not yet fully revealed, but this study provides the tools for studies to be done. This landmark study opens many new areas of work”.

Professor Paul Moss of the University of Birmingham, who leads the UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium, added: “This paper is highly important in the fight against SARS-CoV-2. The team demonstrate that cellular immune responses develop in most people after infection and are particularly strong in those with more severe disease. This provides the foundation for new approaches to assess immunity and also for optimisation of vaccine design”.

The team’s next steps include investigating how long T cell immune memory lasts and whether this has implications for new diagnostic tests and future treatments.

Image Credit to National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases / Wikimedia Commons. License: CC-BY-2.0.