Researchers collaborate on new study to understand vaccine escape


Hands wearing orange gloves handling tubes of blood.

Public Health England (PHE) are launching a new study to understand vaccine escape and probe the factors influencing COVID-19 immunity. 

A consortium of academic partners, including the Francis Crick Institute, will receive £1.5million in funding from UKRI to understand why some people become infected after vaccination or prior infection while others do not. Together researchers will assess detailed immune system response to COVID-19 infections and vaccinations in people enrolled in the SIREN study. 

Understanding immunity is crucial to the pandemic response. We are teaming up with PHE and partners across the UK to get the best measurements of the body’s immune response after vaccination. 
Rupert Beale

They will seek to answer a number of additional questions, including how long immunity from vaccinations lasts, how the timeline differs between the different vaccines and how changes in the SARS-CoV-2 virus genetic make-up might aid the virus in evading the immune system.

Individuals enrolled in the study are given PCR tests every two weeks as well as regular antibody blood tests. The antibody results of those individuals who test positive for COVID-19 despite having had two doses of the vaccine or a previous confirmed infection, called a ‘breakthrough’ infection, will be analysed by further specialised tests and clinical interviews to determine whether there are aspects of their immune response that differ from individuals who do not contract COVID-19. 

Using gold-standard assays developed in-house, researchers at the Crick will be building on the experience and findings of the Legacy study, a large prospective research project, tracking vulnerability to COVID-19 in individuals. They will be analysing the antibody responses of people who experience a breakthrough infection to help understand what the risk factors are and inform protective measures moving forward.

Rupert Beale, head of the Crick’s Cell Biology of Infection Laboratory, said: “Understanding immunity is crucial to the pandemic response. We are teaming up with PHE and partners across the UK to get the best measurements of the body’s immune response after vaccination. 

“We would like to understand which aspects of the immune response are the best predictors of vaccine efficacy. This will let us target additional doses of vaccine to people who might need them, and will inform the design of next generation vaccines to get better protection against emerging viral variants.”

Participants may also be asked if they would like to participate in analysis of their genetic code via GENOMICC, to see if there are particular mutations in their DNA that might predict a poor response to vaccination.

Professor Susan Hopkins, COVID-19 Strategic Response Director at Public Health England at PHE said: “Understanding the immune response is essential not only to determine who is most at risk of infections after vaccination, but also for vaccine developers who can target key components of the immune response effectively for future boost vaccines. 

“We are pleased that this funding will allow us to better understand immunity and are very grateful to the nearly 50,000 participants who have given up their time to take part in the study.” 

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