Duane Wesemann (left) and his team at a gathering before the COVID-19 crisis and research shutdown.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus has been on diagnosing patients who are currently infected with the virus. But what happens when a person recovers from the infection? Could antibodies their body developed to fight the infection keep them from getting infected? Could those antibodies help protect others?

Brigham researchers are collaborating on a project to collect and test blood samples from people who have recovered. Insights from this work could provide critical information about rates of exposure, the types of antibodies an infection elicits and the degree of immunity recovered patients have against re-infection. In addition, it could inform vaccine development, helping illuminate which regions of SARS-CoV2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) may be most important to target or provide information on whether blood donations from recovered individuals could help protect those who are at risk of infection.

Duane Wesemann, MD, PhD, a Brigham immunologist and principal investigator, runs a lab that studies the entire set of antibodies a host’s immune system produces. The team has turned its full attention to the COVID-19 pandemic and the immune response of people who become infected. They are eager to understand what antibodies are induced by the virus.

“There are multiple ways the immune system can fight the virus,” said Wesemann. “When a host develops antibodies against a virus, those antibodies might not be so effective, or they may be predictive of immunity.”

Early Days

Wesemann and his team are collecting blood samples from people who have been infected by, and have recovered from, COVID-19. The team is currently seeking volunteers from the general public as well as health care workers to donate blood samples that will be checked for immunity to COVID-19 over a long period of time. The team also plans to isolate immune cells and antibodies against SARS-CoV2.

“We’re so early in the process of understanding COVID-19 that there’s a lot of basic work that needs to be done,” said Wesemann. “We need to understand how quickly antibodies are induced, what parts of the virus they target, how long immunity lasts, and the degree to which the presence of antibodies can forecast immune protection.”

Wesemann explains that infection doesn’t always elicit immunity. For some viruses, such as chicken pox, a single infection can result in lifelong immunity. In other cases, such as influenza or the common cold, reinfection can occur. And for some viruses, such as HIV, even though essentially everyone infected will make antibodies against the virus, those antibodies usually do little to clear the virus completely.

The team would also like to look at blood samples drawn from patients prior to COVID-19 infection to better understand the role of prior exposure to other viruses and how this might influence the course of a person’s immune response to SARS-CoV2.

Coming Together

Wesemann’s team is collaborating with Stephen Elledge, PhD, of the Brigham’s Division of Genetics. Elledge previously developed a virus-scanning tool known as VirScan, which can detect evidence of infection of more than 1,000 strains of viruses from a blood sample. Elledge’s team is in the process of adding SARS-CoV2 to the tool. VirScan works by identifying linear epitopes — chopped up bits of the virus that antibodies can recognize. Together with Elledge and other collaborators, Wesemann’s team hopes to help identify which antibodies are best at neutralizing the virus. This could help researchers more systemically search for an effective vaccine.

“Hopefully early vaccine trials already in process will identify an effective vaccine. In case this virus is a more challenging vaccine target, we and many other groups are looking to understand the immunology relevant to this particular virus. Once we know the antibodies that work best against SARS-CoV2, we can then test vaccines in animal models to see which vaccine is best at inducing these favorable antibodies,” said Wesemann.

Wesemann acknowledges the challenges of conducting research during a medical crisis but has also been struck by the generosity of collaborators, colleagues and study volunteers.

“It’s a horrible pandemic crisis, but inspiring to see how people are working together,” said Wesemann. “There are many labs stepping up and using their resources to address this. We’re excited to be a small part of that. We’re collaborating with others and are eager to make our contributions as valuable as possible. We realize our work is just a piece of a larger effort — many labs and great scientists are doing excellent work and organizing efforts to address this. Together, I’m confident we’ll find solutions.”

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