Urgent research into how aging immune system responds to COVID-19 needed

Professor Deborah Dunn-Walters, from the University of Surrey and Chair of the British Society for Immunology COVID-19 and Immunology taskforce, has led an expert taskforce calling for urgent research into how age affects the immune system’s response to COVID-19. Research in this area is crucial to improve patient care and help develop more effective treatments and vaccines.

Previous findings in this area has shown that the ability of the immune system to respond appropriately to infections decreases as people get older. From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been clear that older people have significantly worse outcomes following SARS-CoV-2 infection—the older a person is, the more likely it is that they will be hospitalized due to COVID-19 and have a higher chance of dying because of the disease.

Publishing their report, the task force analyzed what we currently do and don’t understand about the science behind these statistics, examining why the immune systems of older people react differently to SARS-CoV-2 infection. The report also outlines five research recommendations to increase understanding of how the older immune system responds to the virus, with a particular focus on issues around co-infections and multi morbidity, both of which are common in older adults. A better understanding of the immunological response in older people to COVID-19 infection will help improve patient care and have implications for treatment and vaccine approaches.

Future research recommendations:

1. To establish detailed studies of the symptoms and clinical progression of COVID-19 infection in non-hospitalized individuals which are large enough to determine ages at which critical changes occur. Studies should identify factors (such as co-morbidities, more common in older adults) that affect initial infection, progression to severe disease, recovery and re-infection. This information will be essential to enable targeting of interventions to specific groups.

Professor Deborah Dunn-Walters, Chair of the British Society for Immunology COVID-19 and Immunology task force, and Professor of Immunology at University of Surrey, said:

“Our immune systems change as we get older, which results in a reduced ability to fight infections. Older people are also much more likely to have other chronic health conditions, which also affects the ability of their immune systems to fight infections. We have seen unfortunately this play out through the COVID-19 pandemic, with older people more at risk of becoming seriously ill and dying from the disease. Given the higher risk to older people from COVID-19, it is crucial that we conduct research targeted at understanding exactly how the immune systems of older people respond to SARS-CoV-2 infection. The research recommendations in this British Society for Immunology report provide a clear road map to focus our efforts and bridge this knowledge gap. Increasing our knowledge of how and why the immune response of older people differs will be crucial in allowing us to improve patient care, develop new therapeutic options and inform vaccine research.”

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