Here’s how our immune systems fight Covid-19

We could all use some good news right about now. Covid-19 is absolutely dominating the news cycle, and most of the headlines are bleak. So, if you’re looking for a positive in the midst of all this madness keep reading.

Australian researchers have successfully mapped out the human body’s immune response to Covid-19, and the findings are very promising. An otherwise healthy Australian woman in her 40’s who tested positive for the novel coronavirus was analyzed for this study. She only showed mild-to-moderate symptoms but was hospitalized nonetheless.

In short, they found that despite the fact that Covid-19 is indeed caused by a new viral strain, the human body’s immune reaction to its presence is very similar to that of influenza. This suggests that our immune systems are, for the most part, quite capable of beating the virus. 

They believe that generally healthy people with a strong immune system will recover from an infection the vast majority of the time. Moreover, they estimate that over 80% of current Covid-19 cases are mild.

While the studied patient was dealing with Covid-19, blood samples were taken on four occasions. This enabled the research team at the University of Melbourne and the Royal Melbourne Hospital to put together the first-ever comprehensive report on broad immune responses to the novel coronavirus.

“We looked at the whole breadth of the immune response in this patient using the knowledge we have built over many years of looking at immune responses in patients hospitalized with influenza,” explains co-study author Dr. Oanh Nguyen in a press release. “Three days after the patient was admitted, we saw large populations of several immune cells, which are often a tell-tale sign of recovery during seasonal influenza infection, so we predicted that the patient would recover in three days, which is what happened.”

This research just goes to show how important being properly prepared is in times like these. 

Before Covid-19 arrived on the global scene The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, a joint initiative between Melbourne University & Hospital, already had a program in place designed to quickly and efficiently gather biological samples from returning Australian travelers carrying a new infectious disease. 

The level of foresight here is quite astounding. The entire world has been taken by surprise by Covid-19, but this team of scientists at least had the perfect protocol in place to study the virus as soon as it arrived in the land down under.

“When COVID-19 emerged, we already had ethics and protocols in place so we could rapidly start looking at the virus and immune system in great detail,” says Dr. Irani Thevarajan.

Using these periodically drawn blood and biological samples, the study’s authors were able to closely follow her body’s immune reaction to the viral infection. The woman enjoyed a full recovery within a matter of days, and researchers believe a thorough examination of this successful immune response may hold the key to developing an effective Covid-19 vaccine.

“We showed that even though COVID-19 is caused by a new virus, in an otherwise healthy person, a robust immune response across different cell types was associated with clinical recovery, similar to what we see in influenza,” comments University of Melbourne Professor Katherine Kedzierska. “This is an incredible step forward in understanding what drives recovery of COVID-19. People can use our methods to understand the immune responses in larger COVID-19 cohorts, and also understand what’s lacking in those who have fatal outcomes.”

These findings are very encouraging, but make no mistake, Covid-19 still has a troublingly high mortality rate. While those of us with a strong immune system and healthy body should be able to recover, there are still tens of millions of people on this planet at risk due to old age, a compromised immune system, or pre-existing medical issues.

“We hope to now expand our work nationally and internationally to understand why some people die from COVID-19, and build further knowledge to assist in the rapid response of COVID-19 and future emerging viruses,” Dr. Thevarajan concludes.

There’s still a whole lot of work ahead of us, and these findings certainly shouldn’t cause anyone to doubt the severity of this situation. Still, it’s nice to read some good news during these tumultuous times.

The full study can be found here, published in Nature Medicine.