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Immune T Cells May Offer Lasting Protection Against COVID-19

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Healthy human T Cell
Caption: Scanning electron micrograph of a human T lymphocyte (T cell) from a healthy donor’s immune system. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH

Much of the study on the immune response to SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, has focused on the production of antibodies. But, in fact, immune cells known as memory T cells also play an important role in the ability of our immune systems to protect us against many viral infections, including—it now appears—COVID-19.

An intriguing new study of these memory T cells suggests they might protect some people newly infected with SARS-CoV-2 by remembering past encounters with other human coronaviruses. This might potentially explain why some people seem to fend off the virus and may be less susceptible to becoming severely ill with COVID-19.

The findings, reported in the journal Nature, come from the lab of Antonio Bertoletti at the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore [1]. Bertoletti is an expert in viral infections, particularly hepatitis B. But, like so many researchers around the world, his team has shifted their focus recently to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bertoletti’s team recognized that many factors could help to explain how a single virus can cause respiratory, circulatory, and other symptoms that vary widely in their nature and severity—as we’ve witnessed in this pandemic. One of those potential factors is prior immunity to other, closely related viruses.

SARS-CoV-2 belongs to a large family of coronaviruses, six of which were previously known to infect humans. Four of them are responsible for the common cold. The other two are more dangerous: SARS-CoV-1, the virus responsible for the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which ended in 2004; and MERS-CoV, the virus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

All six previously known coronaviruses spark production of both antibodies and memory T cells. In addition, studies of immunity to SARS-CoV-1 have shown that T cells stick around for many years longer than acquired antibodies. So, Bertoletti’s team set out to gain a better understanding of T cell immunity against the novel coronavirus.

The researchers gathered blood samples from 36 people who’d recently recovered from mild to severe COVID-19. They focused their attention on T cells (including CD4 helper and CD8 cytotoxic, both of which can function as memory T cells). They identified T cells that respond to the SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid, which is a structural protein inside the virus. They also detected T cell responses to two non-structural proteins that SARS-CoV-2 needs to make additional copies of its genome and spread. The team found that all those recently recovered from COVID-19 produced T cells that recognize multiple parts of SARS-CoV-2.

Next, they looked at blood samples from 23 people who’d survived SARS. Their studies showed that those individuals still had lasting memory T cells today, 17 years after the outbreak. Those memory T cells, acquired in response to SARS-CoV-1, also recognized parts of SARS-CoV-2.

Finally, Bertoletti’s team looked for such T cells in blood samples from 37 healthy individuals with no history of either COVID-19 or SARS. To their surprise, more than half had T cells that recognize one or more of the SARS-CoV-2 proteins under study here. It’s still not clear if this acquired immunity stems from previous infection with coronaviruses that cause the common cold or perhaps from exposure to other as-yet unknown coronaviruses.

What’s clear from this study is our past experiences with coronavirus infections may have something important to tell us about COVID-19. Bertoletti’s team and others are pursuing this intriguing lead to see where it will lead—not only in explaining our varied responses to the virus, but also in designing new treatments and optimized vaccines.


[1] SARS-CoV-2-specific T cell immunity in cases of COVID-19 and SARS, and uninfected controls. Le Bert N, Tan AT, Kunasegaran K, et al. Nature. 2020 July 15. [published online ahead of print]


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Overview of the Immune System (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIAID)

Bertoletti Lab (Duke-NUS Medical School, Singapore)

Capturing Viral Shedding in Action

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Credit: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Hamilton, MT

You’ve probably seen some amazing high-resolution images of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, on television and the web. What you might not know is that many of these images, including the ones shown here, were produced at Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML), a part of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) that’s located in the small Montana town of Hamilton.

The head of RML’s Electron Microscopy Unit, Elizabeth Fischer, was the researcher who took this portrait of SARS-CoV-2. For more than 25 years, Fischer has snapped stunning images of dangerous viruses and microbes, including some remarkable shots of the deadly Ebola virus. She also took some of the first pictures of the coronavirus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which arose from camels and continues to circulate at low levels in people.

The NIAID facility uses a variety of microscopy techniques, including state-of-the-art cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). But the eye-catching image you see here was taken with a classic scanning electron microscope (SEM).

SEM enables visualization of particles, including viruses, that are too small to be seen with traditional light microscopy. It does so by focusing electrons, instead of light, into a beam that scans the surface of a sample that’s first been dehydrated, chemically preserved, and then coated with a thin layer of metal. As electrons bounce off the sample’s surface, microscopists such as Fischer are able to capture its precise topology. The result is a gray-scale micrograph like the one you see above on the left. To make the image easier to interpret, Fischer hands the originals off to RML’s Visual Medical Arts Department, which uses colorization to make key features pop like they do in the image on the right.

So, what exactly are you seeing in this image? The orange-brown folds and protrusions are part of the surface of a single cell that’s been infected with SARS-CoV-2. This particular cell comes from a commonly studied primate kidney epithelial cell line. The small, blue spheres emerging from the cell surface are SARS-CoV-2 particles.

This picture is quite literally a snapshot of viral shedding, a process in which viral particles are released from a dying cell. This image gives us a window into how devastatingly effective SARS-CoV-2 appears to be at co-opting a host’s cellular machinery: just one infected cell is capable of releasing thousands of new virus particles that can, in turn, be transmitted to others.

While capturing a fixed sample on the microscope is fairly straightforward for a pro like Fischer, developing a sample like this one involves plenty of behind-the-scenes trial and error by NIAID investigators. As you might imagine, to see the moment that viruses emerge from an infected cell, you have to get the timing just right.

By capturing many shots of the coronavirus using the arsenal of microscopes available at RML and elsewhere, researchers are learning more every day about how SARS-CoV-2 enters a cell, moves inside it, and then emerges to infect other cells. In addition to advancing scientific knowledge, Fischer notes that images like these also hold the remarkable power to make an invisible enemy visible to the world at large.

Making SARS-CoV-2 tangible helps to demystify the challenges that all of us now face as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The hope is it will encourage each and every one of us to do our part to fight it, whether that means digging into the research, working on the front lines, or staying at home to prevent transmission and flatten the curve. And, if you could use some additional inspiration, don’t miss the NIAID’s image gallery on Flickr, which includes some of Fischer’s finest work.


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Rocky Mountain Laboratories (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Elizabeth Fischer (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Genomic Study Points to Natural Origin of COVID-19

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COVID-19 Update

No matter where you go online these days, there’s bound to be discussion of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Some folks are even making outrageous claims that the new coronavirus causing the pandemic was engineered in a lab and deliberately released to make people sick. A new study debunks such claims by providing scientific evidence that this novel coronavirus arose naturally.

The reassuring findings are the result of genomic analyses conducted by an international research team, partly supported by NIH. In their study in the journal Nature Medicine, Kristian Andersen, Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA; Robert Garry, Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans; and their colleagues used sophisticated bioinformatic tools to compare publicly available genomic data from several coronaviruses, including the new one that causes COVID-19.

The researchers began by homing in on the parts of the coronavirus genomes that encode the spike proteins that give this family of viruses their distinctive crown-like appearance. (By the way, “corona” is Latin for “crown.”) All coronaviruses rely on spike proteins to infect other cells. But, over time, each coronavirus has fashioned these proteins a little differently, and the evolutionary clues about these modifications are spelled out in their genomes.

The genomic data of the new coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 show that its spike protein contains some unique adaptations. One of these adaptations provides special ability of this coronavirus to bind to a specific protein on human cells called angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE2). A related coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in humans also seeks out ACE2.

Existing computer models predicted that the new coronavirus would not bind to ACE2 as well as the SARS virus. However, to their surprise, the researchers found that the spike protein of the new coronavirus actually bound far better than computer predictions, likely because of natural selection on ACE2 that enabled the virus to take advantage of a previously unidentified alternate binding site. Researchers said this provides strong evidence that that new virus was not the product of purposeful manipulation in a lab. In fact, any bioengineer trying to design a coronavirus that threatened human health probably would never have chosen this particular conformation for a spike protein.

The researchers went on to analyze genomic data related to the overall molecular structure, or backbone, of the new coronavirus. Their analysis showed that the backbone of the new coronavirus’s genome most closely resembles that of a bat coronavirus discovered after the COVID-19 pandemic began. However, the region that binds ACE2 resembles a novel virus found in pangolins, a strange-looking animal sometimes called a scaly anteater. This provides additional evidence that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 almost certainly originated in nature. If the new coronavirus had been manufactured in a lab, scientists most likely would have used the backbones of coronaviruses already known to cause serious diseases in humans.

So, what is the natural origin of the novel coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic? The researchers don’t yet have a precise answer. But they do offer two possible scenarios.

In the first scenario, as the new coronavirus evolved in its natural hosts, possibly bats or pangolins, its spike proteins mutated to bind to molecules similar in structure to the human ACE2 protein, thereby enabling it to infect human cells. This scenario seems to fit other recent outbreaks of coronavirus-caused disease in humans, such as SARS, which arose from cat-like civets; and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which arose from camels.

The second scenario is that the new coronavirus crossed from animals into humans before it became capable of causing human disease. Then, as a result of gradual evolutionary changes over years or perhaps decades, the virus eventually gained the ability to spread from human-to-human and cause serious, often life-threatening disease.

Either way, this study leaves little room to refute a natural origin for COVID-19. And that’s a good thing because it helps us keep focused on what really matters: observing good hygiene, practicing social distancing, and supporting the efforts of all the dedicated health-care professionals and researchers who are working so hard to address this major public health challenge.

Finally, next time you come across something about COVID-19 online that disturbs or puzzles you, I suggest going to FEMA’s new Coronavirus Rumor Control web site. It may not have all the answers to your questions, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction in helping to distinguish rumors from facts.

[1] The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Andersen KG, Rambaut A, Lipkin WI, Holmes EC, Garry RF. Nat Med, 17 March 2020. [Epub ahead of publication]


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

COVID-19, MERS & SARS (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Andersen Lab (Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA)

Robert Garry (Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans)

Coronavirus Rumor Control (FEMA)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Human Genome Research Institute

Structural Biology Points Way to Coronavirus Vaccine

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Spike Protein on Novel Coronavirus
Caption: Atomic-level structure of the spike protein of the virus that causes COVID-19.
Credit: McLellan Lab, University of Texas at Austin

The recent COVID-19 outbreak of a novel type of coronavirus that began in China has prompted a massive global effort to contain and slow its spread. Despite those efforts, over the last month the virus has begun circulating outside of China in multiple countries and territories.

Cases have now appeared in the United States involving some affected individuals who haven’t traveled recently outside the country. They also have had no known contact with others who have recently arrived from China or other countries where the virus is spreading. The NIH and other U.S. public health agencies stand on high alert and have mobilized needed resources to help not only in its containment, but in the development of life-saving interventions.

On the treatment and prevention front, some encouraging news was recently reported. In record time, an NIH-funded team of researchers has created the first atomic-scale map of a promising protein target for vaccine development [1]. This is the so-called spike protein on the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19. As shown above, a portion of this spiky surface appendage (green) allows the virus to bind a receptor on human cells, causing other portions of the spike to fuse the viral and human cell membranes. This process is needed for the virus to gain entry into cells and infect them.

Preclinical studies in mice of a candidate vaccine based on this spike protein are already underway at NIH’s Vaccine Research Center (VRC), part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). An early-stage phase I clinical trial of this vaccine in people is expected to begin within weeks. But there will be many more steps after that to test safety and efficacy, and then to scale up to produce millions of doses. Even though this timetable will potentially break all previous speed records, a safe and effective vaccine will take at least another year to be ready for widespread deployment.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, including some that cause “the common cold” in healthy humans. In fact, these viruses are found throughout the world and account for up to 30 percent of upper respiratory tract infections in adults.

This outbreak of COVID-19 marks the third time in recent years that a coronavirus has emerged to cause severe disease and death in some people. Earlier coronavirus outbreaks included SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which emerged in late 2002 and disappeared two years later, and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), which emerged in 2012 and continues to affect people in small numbers.

Soon after COVID-19 emerged, the new coronavirus, which is closely related to SARS, was recognized as its cause. NIH-funded researchers including Jason McLellan, an alumnus of the VRC and now at The University of Texas at Austin, were ready. They’d been studying coronaviruses in collaboration with NIAID investigators for years, with special attention to the spike proteins.

Just two weeks after Chinese scientists reported the first genome sequence of the virus [2], McLellan and his colleagues designed and produced samples of its spike protein. Importantly, his team had earlier developed a method to lock coronavirus spike proteins into a shape that makes them both easier to analyze structurally via the high-resolution imaging tool cryo-electron microscopy and to use in vaccine development efforts.

After locking the spike protein in the shape it takes before fusing with a human cell to infect it, the researchers reconstructed its atomic-scale 3D structural map in just 12 days. Their results, published in Science, confirm that the spike protein on the virus that causes COVID-19 is quite similar to that of its close relative, the SARS virus. It also appears to bind human cells more tightly than the SARS virus, which may help to explain why the new coronavirus appears to spread more easily from person to person, mainly by respiratory transmission.

McLellan’s team and his NIAID VRC counterparts also plan to use the stabilized spike protein as a probe to isolate naturally produced antibodies from people who’ve recovered from COVID-19. Such antibodies might form the basis of a treatment for people who’ve been exposed to the virus, such as health care workers.

The NIAID is now working with the biotechnology company Moderna, Cambridge, MA, to use the latest findings to develop a vaccine candidate using messenger RNA (mRNA), molecules that serve as templates for making proteins. The goal is to direct the body to produce a spike protein in such a way to elicit an immune response and the production of antibodies. An early clinical trial of the vaccine in people is expected to begin in the coming weeks. Other vaccine candidates are also in preclinical development.

Meanwhile, the first clinical trial in the U.S. to evaluate an experimental treatment for COVID-19 is already underway at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s biocontainment unit [3]. The NIH-sponsored trial will evaluate the safety and efficacy of the experimental antiviral drug remdesivir in hospitalized adults diagnosed with COVID-19. The first participant is an American who was repatriated after being quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.

As noted, the risk of contracting COVID-19 in the United States is currently low, but the situation is changing rapidly. One of the features that makes the virus so challenging to stay in front of is its long latency period before the characteristic flu-like fever, cough, and shortness of breath manifest. In fact, people infected with the virus may not show any symptoms for up to two weeks, allowing them to pass it on to others in the meantime. You can track the reported cases in the United States on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.

As the outbreak continues over the coming weeks and months, you can be certain that NIH and other U.S. public health organizations are working at full speed to understand this virus and to develop better diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines.


[1] Cryo-EM structure of the 2019-nCoV spike in the prefusion conformation. Wrapp D, Wang N, Corbett KS, Goldsmith JA, Hsieh CL, Abiona O, Graham BS, McLellan JS. Science. 2020 Feb 19.

[2] A new coronavirus associated with human respiratory disease in China. Wu F, Zhao S, Yu B, Chen YM, Wang W, Song ZG, Hu Y, Tao ZW, Tian JH, Pei YY, Yuan ML, Zhang YL, Dai FH, Liu Y, Wang QM, Zheng JJ, Xu L, Holmes EC, Zhang YZ. Nature. 2020 Feb 3.

[3] NIH clinical trial of remdesivir to treat COVID-19 begins. NIH News Release. Feb 25, 2020.


Coronaviruses (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIAID)

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases