A 2006 Tutu Fellow, Wendy Burgers, is leading research into reinfection of patients by COVID-19. She had noticed that globally, a handful of patients had reportedly been reinfected with COVID. She thought it was important to discover and understand how the immune system responds to the virus and whether it provides previously infected patients with a level of protection, should they be re-exposed to the virus.
Wendy is a viral immunologist and Associate Professor in the Division of Medical Virology in the Department of Pathology in University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Faculty of Health Sciences. Wendy and her team partnered with a healthcare worker study in UCT’s Department of Medicine, which involves regular sampling of a group of healthcare workers who have a high risk of exposure to the virus but who had already been infected with COVID-19. It also used a group of their peers who had not.
They studied the immune responses of both groups. The study spans a period of three years and study visits will occur every six months to obtain samples and perform tests.
She explains that, globally, a handful of patients have reportedly been reinfected with COVID-19. The study investigates “how the immune system responds to the virus and whether it provides previously infected patients with a level of protection should they be re-exposed to the virus.” She also explains how the major arms of the immune system, antibodies and T cells, provide immune memory, or the immune system’s “ability to quickly and specifically recognise antigens (components of a foreign virus or bacteria) that the body has previously encountered to help the body initiate an immune response.” Thus, the main objective of the research, under currently very difficult circumstances, is establishing “how long immune memory lasts in COVID-19 patients, and whether cross-reactive immunity in patients who have been exposed to other related coronaviruses, which typically cause the common cold, protects patients from developing severe forms of COVID-19.”
She elaborates, “We’re trying to understand whether those patients who have been exposed to the common cold viruses (viruses related to COVID-19) build a level of immunity. In this case, T cells that can recognise SARS-CoV-2 might protect [patients] from contracting severe COVID-19.”
You can hear an interview or read more about this important research at the UCT website.