27 September 2021

For the past 18 months Royal Papworth Hospital has been leading on a national project called Humoral Immune Correlates of COVID-19 (HICC Study). RPH are collaborating on this study with the University of Cambridge, along with a wider team of scientists (the HICC Consortium) and have been awarded a grant of £1.5 million from the NIHR. This study aims to understand the antibody response in COVID-19 disease in two groups of people: NHS workers and COVID-19 patients. Participants undergo one year of regular blood tests, swabs and questionnaires.

The team is investigating how the immune response differs in patients with asymptomatic, mild, moderate and severe disease, and why some individuals are more susceptible to severe disease than others. A vaccination arm was later added to the study to explore vaccine response in healthy volunteers (staff) and patients. The HICC team are exploring how the immune response differs following infection compared with vaccination, the impact of pre-vaccination exposure, and whether the immune response to vaccination differs in at risk groups.

HICC was given Urgent Public Health Study designation by the NIHR and, like all COVID studies, needed to be set up rapidly. The first participants were recruited in Papworth in April 2020,  just one month after the WHO declared a pandemic. The majority of staff were recruited within the first month of the study opening. Further NHS Trusts joined in the months that followed. The study has continually adapted as the pandemic evolves resulting in many protocol amendments including, most recently, extending recruitment of participants during the third wave of infections.  In another important development a finger prick blood test has been developed to test for neutralising antibodies. This simple test can be performed at home eliminating the need for clinic visits and considerably reducing the amount of blood required. This is mainly being used by staff volunteers at present but the team are investigating how to extend the use of this to patients too.

Some initial results were published in The Lancet Microbe in June 2021, with more expected to follow as the study closes at the end of the year.