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The study builds on a successful collaboration and will compare T cell and antibody responses to uncover the role of ‘background’ immunity to virus strains already in circulation, including infections with similar coronaviruses.

Busy street of peoples in Sri Lanka (Colombo - photo on left) and UK (London - photo on right).

The study is led by Professor Graham Ogg, who currently heads the MRC Human Immunology Unit at the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, and Professor Neelika Malavige at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. Professor Malavige is also a visiting researcher at Oxford University.

“We have worked together for 12 years to understand the response to dengue infections, and we now want to bring the expertise and knowledge we’ve acquired to understand the immune responses in individuals with COVID-19,” said Professor Ogg.

Current research indicates that immune responses to the novel SARS-CoV2 may be a key that distinguishes only a mild illness after infection from a more serious condition, but the workings of these immune responses are still poorly understood.

By comparing immune markers in blood samples from the UK versus Sri Lanka, the researchers hope to understand how existing immunity to different viruses (including other coronaviruses) might influence the immune response to a COVID-19 infection.

“This kind of existing immunity may play a protective role, or it may worsen disease severity – we just don’t know yet” said Professor Ogg. “By comparing immune responses from two different populations with exposure to different kinds of pathogens, we hope to get a clearer answer to this question.”

So the researchers will be analysing blood samples from the general population, as well as current and recovered COVID-19 patients in both the UK and Sri Lanka, to see how different kinds of existing immunity affect disease. They are particularly interested in T cells, (a kind of white blood cell that is crucial for adapting the body’s immune response to specific pathogens), as well as antibodies (a blood protein manufactured by the body to attack specific pathogens).

“By comparing immune responses from two different populations with exposure to different kinds of pathogens, we hope to get a clearer answer about how background immunity influences COVID-19 disease”, said Professor Graham Ogg.

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