Yemaachi Biotech

Global team to study international differences in COVID-19 immunity

Researchers at UCLH are part of an international consortium to find out why COVID-19 was milder in some parts of the world.

Supported by £3.1 million from the Wellcome Trust, the newly-created WWW Consortium links three leading studies in West Africa, the West Indies, and West London, each tracking how both the virus and our immunity has evolved against COVID-19.

The London based study is Legacy, which is the result of a partnership between UCLH and the Francis Crick Institute established in March 2020. The study set up a unique testing pipeline to protect staff from COVID-19. The Legacy study has already established how factors like age, sex, ethnicity, and medical histories impact the risk of infection and how the body responds.

For the WWW consortium, the Legacy study will link up with the Yemaachi Biotech Heritage Study in Accra, Ghana, and the Windfall Study in Kingston, Jamaica.

In order to better understand the factors impacting COVID-19 outcomes West Africa, the West Indies and London, researchers in the WWW Consortium will compare prospective samples and data from vaccinated individuals. They will assess a variety of immune conditions and medical histories, including prior exposure to SARS-CoV-2, other human and animal coronaviruses, as well as other infectious diseases like malaria.

The consortium will provide evidence to help unpick patterns seen so far in different areas of the world. For example, West Africa experienced large undetected SARS-CoV-2 transmission, but with negligible impacts on mortality. On the other hand, the trends observed in the West Indies were similar to the UK, despite countries like Jamaica having a much lower vaccination rate.

Researchers hope their work will inform future pandemic response in regions where there is little research and surveillance capacity.

Emma Wall, UCLH Infectious Diseases consultant and Senior Clinical Research Fellow for the Legacy study at the Crick, said: “Connecting our London-based study with research projects in Africa and the West Indies will help us not only understand differences across countries, but also how to best protect people based on shared characteristics.

“And as SARS-CoV-2 continues to evolve, we will ensure we are prepared with excellent channels of communication and information sharing globally.”

David LV Bauer, who heads the RNA Virus Replication Laboratory at the Crick, will lead the consortium. He said: “While the initial pandemic response to SARS-CoV-2 is scaling down, ongoing research and monitoring will be essential to understand this virus, which will continue to evolve.

“We wanted to build a global consortium so that research and surveillance capacity continues to grow internationally.”

The consortium will strengthen research connections made during the pandemic, as virologists and public experts collaborated to piece together a picture of viral evolution globally. The project also builds on the success of the Crick African Network (CAN), which established strong ties between African institutions and the Francis Crick Institute.

Gordon Awandare, Director of the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP) at the University of Ghana, said: “Pre-exposure to other infectious diseases like malaria is much more common in West Africa, and we think that this can increase the tolerance of the immune system.

“In some cases, this might be helpful, prepping the immune system for future infections and decreasing the chance of severe illness. But it might also mean that vaccines are less effective and we should consider designing vaccines for specific populations.”

Joshua Anzinger, Senior Lecturer of Virology at The University of the West Indies, said: “Vaccination rates are very low in Jamaica. The Windfall cohort includes individuals amongst the first to be vaccinated. Going forward we will be enrolling both unvaccinated and vaccinated individuals, and monitoring their immune responses to different variants.

“With increased sequencing capacity at our university’s Trinidad campus and more recently in Jamaica, we can now contribute a unique picture of immunity across the West Indies. Crucially we can now untangle the increasing complexity of individual responses to infection, and how these might influence population level immunity against future variants.