28 August 2020

Staff at Royal Papworth Hospital, in collaboration with the University of Cambridge, have secured £1.5 million of funding as part of the national effort by UK immunologists to search for answers on coronavirus (COVID-19).

The study is one of three new UK-wide studies receiving a share of £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.

The scientists aim to develop better tests to: define immunity; study the body’s immune response to SARS-CoV-2, which is the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19; and understand why some people suffer from severe life-threatening COVID-19 while others have mild or asymptomatic infections but can still transmit the virus.

Importantly, these studies will determine when and how immunity persists or whether people can become re-infected. Together it is hoped they will improve the treatment of patients and inform the development of vaccines and therapies.

The Humoral Immune Correlates of COVID-19 (HICC) consortium will study the humoral immune response - molecules produced by the immune system to fight infection, including antibodies – by focusing on two cohorts: NHS workers - in collaboration with SIREN - to track immunity over 12 months, and hospitalised patients.

The study will inform treatments for COVID-19 patients at different stages and with different severities of the disease

The study will look in detail at the role of antibodies in immunity to SARS-CoV-2 and characterise the antibody response in people who have mild or asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection versus those who develop moderate or severe COVID-19 disease. 

The researchers want to better understand the differences between beneficial - or protective - antibody responses versus those that cause disease. This will help to determine why early indications suggest that people with stronger antibody responses may have had more life-threatening disease and what types of antibody responses are more effective in preventing severe infection.

It is also hoped that the study will inform treatments for COVID-19 patients at different stages and with different severities of the disease, including whether targeting the over-activation of the innate humoral immune response – known as the ‘complement system’ - to SARS-CoV-2, could provide a unique approach to reducing severe COVID-19-related disease and death. 

The consortium is a collaboration led by Dr Helen Baxendale at Royal Papworth Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and Professor Wilhelm Schwaeble and Professor Jonathan Heeney at the University of Cambridge.

Dr Baxendale said: “Understanding the role of antibody responses to SARS-CoV-2 is critical to improve the clinical management of life-threatening cases of COVID-19.

The HICC consortium has received £1.5 million of funding to study immune responses to COVID-19 

"The results will help to develop better tests to diagnose protective immunity, as well as determine how long protective antibodies persist after exposure to the virus and inform treatments for COVID-19 patients at different stages and with different severities of the disease.

“For example, in critical care, we know most patients have high levels of antibody to SARS-CoV-2 - what we don’t know is whether these antibodies are helpful. Pilot data has shown that many of our NHS staff have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2, but we need to find out whether this means they are protected from further infection either in the short or the long term, or whether they may be at risk of disease in the future. Understanding the different types of antibody responses will allow us to determine beneficial antibodies from dangerous ones.

“Collaborating nationally with other UK COVID-19 projects and supported by clinical research networks and scientists across the country, this investment will help us answer these fundamentally important questions.”

The UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium (UK-CIC) will receive £6.5 million to bring together leading immunologists from 17 research institutions. The consortium will investigate key questions, including for how long immunology lasts and why some people’s immune systems are better able to fight off the virus. 

HICC has been given urgent public health research status

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.

Using authorised hospital post-mortem examinations of patients who have died from COVID-19, this study will provide a unique opportunity for expert clinicians and scientists to study the whole body in a level of detail that is not possible during life.

Both the HICC and UK-CIC 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.

Medical Research Council, part of UKRI, Chief Executive Professor Fiona Watt said: “The UK is funding a collaboration of world-leading immunologists to investigate the major unanswered questions related to coronavirus immunity. Finding out more about the immune response to COVID-19 will be key to developing better treatments and vaccines and improving public health strategies.”

Chief Medical Officer for England and Head of the NIHR Professor Chris Whitty said: “Understanding how our immune systems respond to COVID-19 is key to solving some of the important questions about this new disease, including whether those who have had the disease develop immunity and how long this lasts, and why some are more severely affected.

“This investment will help immunology experts to discover how our immune systems respond to SARS-CoV-2, including our T cell response. This is vital information to help prevent and treat the disease.”

Visit the HICC consortium website

Read the full NIHR press release on COVID-19 immunology studies