A theory Anastasia Vlasova and colleagues are testing about COVID-19 might offer hope to families dealing with the merry-go-round of illnesses set off when a young child arrives home from daycare or school.
When people catch a series of other coronaviruses, such as the ones that trigger a common cold, their bodies develop antibodies to fight that particular coronavirus, but also potentially to combat the novel coronavirus now causing the world pandemic, Vlasova believes.
That means if parents or others are exposed to a lot of other coronaviruses, they just might have some natural defenses against the newest and most dangerous one. At least that’s what Vlasova is hoping.
“If a person has very severe symptoms of COVID-19, is it because the person might not have enough antibodies to the common cold?” Vlasova asked. “That’s what we want to explore.”
The assistant professor, along with researchers at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center and CFAES, is exploring another possible explanation for why some people are spared from COVID-19 or have only mild symptoms while others die from it.
If prior exposure to other coronaviruses offers some type of immunity boost, researchers can use the blood plasma of these folks as treatment for the severely ill.
“That could widen the pool of candidates who can donate plasma to help treat the most serious COVID-19 cases,” Vlasova said.
For now, scientists at Ohio State are using the plasma from patients who had and beat COVID-19—not the plasma of people who never experienced symptoms of the illness and might have a natural immunity to the disease.
Along with trying to create a treatment to fend off COVID-19, CFAES researchers are developing new COVID-19 tests, working on a vaccine, and evaluating whether existing drugs treating other diseases can fight the deadly respiratory virus.
“Coronaviruses are tricky. They figure out ways to mute the immune response,” said Scott Kenney, an assistant professor who specializes in viruses, including coronaviruses, that jump from animals to people, as the one causing COVID-19 did.
That’s one of the many vexing qualities of the virus that makes it so difficult to develop a vaccine to prevent it.
When you get sick from COVID-19, your body typically triggers an immune response to the disease, forming antibodies in your bloodstream. But with COVID-19, those antibodies formed to fight the disease can potentially wear off in two to three months—no longer offering full protection from getting the disease again, Kenney said.
“We’re not sure if it’s a total loss of protection. A person might get sick again but recover faster,” he said.
More expansive testing can help control the rapid-fire spread of the novel coronavirus. Kenney is working to create a test for COVID-19 that could deliver results in 15 minutes. He and his CFAES colleagues are particularly interested in testing various farm animals to see how susceptible they are to catching COVID-19 and to passing it on to other animals or people who work around them.
“Cows, sheep, goats—could they be a reservoir for the coronavirus causing COVID-19? No one knows. If a farmer has COVID-19, could he or she pass it on to animals?” Kenney asked. “There’s no proof either way.”
Directing CFAES work on coronaviruses is Linda Saif, who has studied coronaviruses in animals for over 40 years. A Distinguished University Professor, Saif began the research in the early 1970s because coronavirus infections were and remain a leading killer of baby pigs and calves, causing diarrhea or pneumonia.
During the 2003 outbreak of SARS, a cousin to the coronavirus causing the current pandemic, Saif was among the first researchers to show that coronaviruses could be transmitted from one species to another.
“Suddenly my years of painstaking research provided a foundation for understanding this new viral pathogenin humans,” Saif said.
Saif now works with researchers in Ohio State’s College of Medicine and College of Veterinary Medicine to develop blood tests to survey the level of antibodies in the plasma of patients who had COVID-19 and recovered.
With all the work on stopping COVID-19, it might seem strange that Saif and her colleague Qiuhong Wang, an associate professor in CFAES, are also working on cloning the coronavirus causing the world pandemic.
But that clone can be used to make a vaccine, a weakened form of the coronavirus causing COVID-19. Anyone who would get the vaccine would generate an immune response to the virus but not get the disease, similar to the way live vaccines work to protect against measles and chickenpox.
“We need more than one vaccine to fight this disease,” Wang said. “A certain vaccine that could work for younger people might not be effective for the elderly, who are among the most vulnerable.”
Still, despite these and other hurdles, their work continues, inside and outside of labs, trying to stop a virus they had long suspected might surface.