Here’s how your body gains immunity to Covid-19


Continued from Saturday’s issue

©️  ZANIA STAMASAKI- Studies are emerging into animal hosts — so far the virus has been detected in a few ferrets, cats, tigers and dogs. No animal deaths have yet been reported, and we don’t know if animals can transmit back to humans.

The age differential in fatalities for Covid-19 suggests, with some exceptions, that a healthy immune system is usually able to control infection.

Meanwhile, an ageing or weakened immune system may struggle to deploy a protective arsenal. Importantly, Sars-Cov-2 cannot gain entry to our homes or bodies by itself — we have to let it in. This is why official advice has centred around cleaning our hands and avoiding touching our faces.

We know that a healthy immune system is usually able to eliminate infection in a couple of weeks.
However, we have no understanding of the components of our immune arsenal that contribute to this feat: some vaccines work by creating potent neutralising antibodies; other vaccines generate powerful memory T-cells.

Antiviral antibodies emerge as early as three to four days after virus detection, but are they protective against future reinfection? We believe that antibodies to other coronaviruses (Sars, Mers) last from one to three years. Because this is a new virus, we don’t yet know the answer to this question.

Public Health England is recruiting 16 000 to
20 000 volunteers to monitor antibodies once a month for six to 12 months to confirm whether we can generate long-lasting antibody responses to Sars-Cov-2. Determining the quality of these antibodies will be important to understanding long-term protection.

What is our most potent immune weapon against Covid-19? Cytotoxic T-cells may play an important role. Immunologists and virologists are working together to discover the correlates of protection, to design vaccines that offer long-term defences against Covid-19.

Years of investment in research means that we can use existing approaches to respond to this new threat, and early mobilisation of research funders, philanthropists and academics are diverting resources to bolster these efforts on an unprecedented scale.

Experience has taught us that vaccines are able to eradicate infections from this planet (for instance, smallpox), and medicines against viruses that don’t embed their genetic material to our own (for example, hepatitis C) can also achieve this.

Our secret weapon is research. Scientists are working hard on understanding Covid-19, and collaboration is key to this effort.

But until a vaccine or treatment is available, we ought to work hard to protect ourselves and our families: isolate and prevent transmission by using physical distancing, face masks and sensible hygiene. If we all do our part, this little virus holding the world to ransom won’t stand a chance.

• Stamataki is a senior lecturer and researcher in viral immunology at the University of Birmingham


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