Prof Dr Markus Gerhard
Deputy Director, Institute for Medical Microbiology, Immunology and Hygiene, Technical University Munich
The fight against COVID-19 has involved organisations across the world, uniting to share knowledge, resources and innovation.
A “rapid response call” was put out by EIT Health in April for projects that would start immediately and have an immediate impact on the COVID-19 pandemic. But these projects need financial support.
Over €6 million has been pledged by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology’s (EIT) health branch, EIT Health, to fund 15 specially selected studies, which unite 41 partners across the organisation’s network.
In an effort to determine the immune response to COVID-19, one project, CoViproteHCT, is a collaboration between Technische Universität München (TUM), Fundacion Privada Instituto de Salud Global Barcelona (ISGLOBAL), the University of Barcelona and Mikrogen GmbH, a German biotech specialised in diagnostics for infectious diseases.
We are not yet sure how to define the protective immune response, which is necessary for vaccine development and to safely get people back to work.
Testing for COVID-19 markers in blood
Several serological assays – tests for certain markers of immune responses in the blood – are being developed to identify individuals who have recovered from COVID-19. However, it is still not clear which types of assay can predict protective immunity.
CoViproteHCT will collect blood samples from healthcare personnel who have tested positive, and test them for antibody and cell-based markers for COVID-19 immunity. By monitoring individuals’ blood markers with their actual health status over time, the researchers hope to determine which markers indicate truly protective immunity.
After six months, researchers will re-examine these healthcare workers to see if any have been re-infected with the virus, and how their immune response differs from those who have not been re-infected despite also being exposed.
How likely might COVID-19 re-infection be?
Professor Markus Gerhard of the TUM School of Medicine, activity lead of CoViproteHCT, says: “We already knew from preliminary data in China that re-infection might be possible, and that hasn’t changed much. We know there are protective antibodies, but we have also seen re-infection.
“We are not yet sure how to define the protective immune response, which is necessary for vaccine development and to safely get people back to work.”
Benefits to frontline workers could be huge
This study will highlight whether or not healthcare personnel who have gone through a COVID-19 infection are protected against re-infection. Plus, validated assays could be used in future vaccine trials to determine the effectiveness of experimental vaccines.
“Ultimately, assuming we can identify a protective immune response, the goal will be to work with our company partner in the consortium, Mikrogen, and develop the assay together, so it can be used for routine testing for protective responses in a more formal way,” added Professor Gerhard.
Working together is much more efficient – and more supportive
Professor Gerhard says: “Working with partners on an operational level is very efficient and supportive. When we want to share an idea, it is usually just a matter of a quick phone call or email.
“I’m also hoping that, if our project works out, we will be able to transfer our assay to our partners, and it could reach the market at some point in the future.”