Covid breakthrough: Catching cold could give you ‘head start’ in winter virus fight

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New research suggests exposure to everyday colds could give some people “a head start” against coronavirus by strengthening the immune system’s defence against the illness quicker. Scientists from University College London published a study in the journal Nature which tracked over 750 healthcare staff who conducted regular tests on COVID-19 patients last year.

On those tested, the researchers found that a subgroup of 58 never tested positive for the virus and showed a marked increase in T-cells – a crucial part of the immune system.

While the immune system has a few different tactics it can use to fend off infection, T-cells can offer protection against a wide range of coronaviruses – including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

This is different to antibodies, which only target more specific threats.

T-cells are specialised white blood cells and our body’s first line of defence.

They can stay in the body for several years after first being created.

Study author Dr Leo Swadling said that when the scientists looked at the individuals who tested negative for COVID-19, although they were repeatedly exposed to the virus, they showed that they had stronger and broader T-cell responses than would usually be expected.

Dr Swadling said: “Exposure alone can induce T-cells without these individuals ever becoming PCR positive or having an antibody response.”

He added that one reason why this might be the case is because healthcare workers may already have a history of previous infection.

Dr Swadling said: “Previous common cold exposure may have given these individuals a head start against the virus, tipping the balance in favour of their immune system eliminating the virus before it could start to replicate.”

But not just any old cold will ramp up your defences against the virus.

This is because only around one in 10 common colds are caused by coronaviruses.

But the researchers did reassure, the people meant they were able to “control the virus before it was detectable”.

Dr Swadling added: “These pre-existing T-cells are poised ready to recognise Sars-CoV-2.

“If you think of the continuum of disease outcomes that you can have after exposure to SARS-Cov-2 – from asymptomatic to mild infection and severe disease – what we’ve described is a new level on this spectrum called abortive infection.

“This is where people have been exposed to the virus, inducing a T-cell response, but they control the virus before it becomes detectable by PCR.”
The scientists unveiled that T-cells are brought into effect by a number of coronaviruses as they respond to a specific cluster of proteins deep inside the virus itself which allow.

These are what are called RTC proteins that are created quickly after infection, and way before the spike protein is expressed.

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They are also highly similar in every different type of coronavirus.

This means that once a person has been exposed to one coronavirus, they theoretically have T-cells against all coronaviruses.

The researchers said: “If you think of it as a race against time between the virus and the immune system, what we’ve described is that early pre-existing T-cells, particularly targeting the RTC, can give the immune system a head start against the virus.

“This may lead to very early control blunting viral replication so it’s not detectable and doesn’t induce an antibody response.”

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