Australian scientists map how the immune system fights coronavirus

Scientists in Australia say they have identified how the body’s immune system fights Covid-19.

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Their research, published in Nature Medicine, shows people are recovering from the new virus like they would from the flu.

Experts say determining which immune cells are appearing should also help with vaccine development.

Globally, authorities have confirmed more than one hundred and sixty thousand cases of coronavirus and about six thousand five hundred deaths.

Study co-author Prof Katherine Kedzierska said “This [discovery] is important because it is the first time where we are really understanding how our immune system fights novel coronavirus.”

The research by Melbourne’s Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity has been praised by other experts, with one calling it “a breakthrough”.

Many people have recovered from Covid-19, meaning it was already known that the immune system can successfully fight the virus.

But for the first time, the research identified four types of immune cells which presented to fight Covid-19.

They were observed by tracking a patient who had a mild to moderate case of the virus and no previous health issues.

The forty seven year old woman from Wuhan, China, had presented to hospital in Australia. She recovered within fourteen days.

Katherine Kedzierska told the BBC her team had examined the “whole breadth of the immune response” in this patient.

Three days before the woman began to improve, specific cells were spotted in her bloodstream. Katherine Kedzierska said, in influenza patients, these same cells also appear around this time before recovery.

She said “We were very excited about our results – and the fact that we could actually capture the emergence of immune cells in the infected patient prior to clinical improvement.”

She said more than a dozen scientists worked around the clock for four weeks to deliver the analysis.

Prof Bruce Thompson, dean of health sciences at Swinburne University of Technology, said identifying when the immune cells kick in can help “predict the course of the virus”.

He said “When you know when the various responses take place you can predict where you are in the recovery of the virus.”

Australia’s Health Minister Greg Hunt said the finding could also help “fast-track” a vaccine and potential treatments for infected patients.

Katherine Kedzierska said the next step for scientists was to determine why the immune response was weaker in worse cases.

She said “It is really key now to understand what is lacking or different in patients who have died or who have really severe disease – so we can understand how to protect them.”

In January the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity became the first institute in the world to recreate the virus outside of China.

The centre has since received additional funding from the Australian government as well as donations from businesses and Chinese billionaire Jack Ma.

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