News at Medicine - October 2020 - How immune are you?


How immune are you?
October 2, 2020
Researchers part of national team studying COVID-19 immunity

Before March 11 and before most of the world had ever heard of COVID-19 and before the ensuing pandemic brought the world to a standstill, nearly 121,000 people worldwide already had the virus.
 
 

A new Memorial University study is recruiting COVID-19 cases, both confirmed and also those who suspect they had COVID-19, to study their antibodies. The researchers are hoping those antibodies will tell them more about immune responses.
 
Dr. Michael Grant’s study, Characterization of Cellular and Humoral Immunity Against SARS-CoV-2, is receiving nearly half a million dollars from Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF), in collaboration with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).
 
Dr. Rod Russell, professor of virology and immunology with the Division of Biomedical Sciences, and PhD candidate Kayla Holder are part of Dr. Grant’s Faculty of Medicine team, which is part of a network of seven teams across the country. 

Severity and durability 

The researchers will need to screen over 200 people to get at least 20 in groups with severe, moderate, mild and no symptoms for a good sample size. To do this, they’re looking for as many of the confirmed COVID cases in Newfoundland and Labrador as they can reach as well as people who suspect they may have had COVID or may have had asymptomatic infection. 
 
“We plan to investigate antibody and T cell responses against SARS-CoV-2 in relation to the severity of infection they experienced, measure antiviral functions of the immune response and assess the durability of these responses over time,” explains Dr. Grant.  
 
Study participants will need to provide blood samples and the researchers will separate the plasma, for the antibody-based studies, from the white blood cells, for the killing and T cell-based studies.
 
Dr. Grant is expecting a lot of interest in the study as “quite a few people think they might have had COVID before March and are interested in getting an antibody test for confirmation.” In fact, about half the people who’ve responded so far believe they may have had COVID-19 before March and therefore weren't tested. However, he does stress that they are a research lab, not a diagnostic lab, so can only inform whether or not someone has the antibody. 
 
“We will be employing antibody tests, which have not been licensed yet in Canada, to confirm or exclude previous infection,” he points out. “As they are not licensed, this is experimental research but we expect to learn something more about the real prevalence of infection, frequency of asymptomatic infection and immune system characteristics that effectively limit the severity of infection.”

Current and future infections

Ultimately, Dr. Grant expects the results to have a global benefit for vaccine design and understanding the role of immunity in short and long-term protection against infection. However, a better understanding of the durability of their immune responses and associated antiviral functions might help with protection against future infections. 
 
The study could have an added benefit of identifying plasma donors, if that continues to be an experimental treatment for COVID-19.
 
National funding
 
The CITF, in collaboration with CIHR, which also granted funding to Dr. Michelle Ploughman’s lab recently (insert link to Jeff’s story), is supporting 22 studies that focus on improving our understanding of COVID-19 immunity in Canada. An investment of $12.4 million in these studies supports both translational research into SARS-CoV-2 immunity and studies to determine the number of people infected with the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 in various populations. The CITF was established by the Government of Canada in late April 2020 to mobilize studies to understand SARS-CoV-2 infection and immunity in Canada.  

In a news release announcing the COVID-19 funding, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam emphasized the importance of studying immunity. “Acquiring immunity at the individual and community level is key to ending this pandemic. While we await a vaccine, improving our understanding of immunity among different populations in Canada who have acquired COVID-19 will help us limit the spread of the virus.” 
 
If you have been diagnosed with COVID-19, been in contact with someone diagnosed or if you believe you may have previously had COVID-19 and would like to take part in the study, please visit: https://twitter.com/mgrant_lab/status/1308480750447099904?s=20 or contact michaelgrantlab@gmail.com.