Universal COVID vaccines can learn from the common cold

universal COVID vaccines, T cells
© Marcos del Mazo

Research shows that T cells, created by the common cold, can give some protection against the virus – which means that universal COVID vaccines can mimic this technology

Before this moment, there were was a lot of discussion about the potential of T cells created by other coronaviruses – like the common cold. These T cells have now been proven to provide some measure of infection protection against COVID.

A study, published in Nature Communications and led by Imperial College London researchers, found that there is some evidence that T cells can be protective.

Dr Rhia Kundu, first author of the study, from Imperial’s National Heart & Lung Institute, said: “Being exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus doesn’t always result in infection, and we’ve been keen to understand why. We found that high levels of pre-existing T cells, created by the body when infected with other human coronaviruses like the common cold, can protect against COVID-19 infection.”

Right now, vaccines do not create an immune response like the common cold does. They target antibodies, not T cells. This new information means that there is more choice for how vaccines are designed – especially universal vaccines, which are in the process of being created and trialled in early 2022. These universal COVID vaccines will be expected to handle variants, without the need for a fresh vaccine to counter a new mutation.

In another silver lining, T cells last longer than a few months, while antibodies can disappear as quickly as within three months.

Sadly, new mutations are always lurking over the horizon. This fact of reality is because the majority of the world’s population remains unvaccinated, with lack of access to the appropriate boosters and second doses in the global south. An intellectual property discussion is ongoing, with atleast 100 factories in Asia, Latin America and Africa waiting to be given legal rights to make mRNA vaccines.

“Internal proteins targeted by T cells mutate less” says Professor

Professor Ajit Lalvani, senior author of the study and Director of the NIHR Respiratory Infections Health Protection Research Unit at Imperial, commented: “Our study provides the clearest evidence to date that T cells induced by common cold coronaviruses play a protective role against SARS-CoV-2 infection. These T cells provide protection by attacking proteins within the virus, rather than the spike protein on its surface.

“The spike protein is under intense immune pressure from vaccine-induced antibody which drives evolution of vaccine escape mutants. In contrast, the internal proteins targeted by the protective T cells we identified mutate much less. Consequently, they are highly conserved between the various SARS-CoV-2 variants, including omicron.

“New vaccines that include these conserved, internal proteins would therefore induce broadly protective T cell responses that should protect against current and future SARS-CoV-2 variants.”

The team note that 88% of the participants were European white, which leaves some questions about real-world implementation.


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